DNR halts sales of willow cats

Staff Writer

Winona, Minn. Thanks to a rule the DNR is now enforcing, walleye
anglers on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River are changing
their angling tactics.

The DNR recently banned bait shops from collecting and selling
willow cats, a popular live bait in the area, after reviewing
existing regulations.

Willow cats, also referred to as madtoms, resemble a small
bullhead. On the Mississippi River in the Winona area, willow cats
are as important to walleye anglers as shiner minnows are to
anglers in lake country. But until the current law changes, willow
cats will be difficult to obtain.

Historically, willow cats were harvested for personal and
commercial use from the Mississippi River. However, the spread of
exotic species like zebra mussels resulted in a 1998 law that
prohibits personal or commercial harvest of willow cats for bait in
the Mississippi River and St. Croix River below Taylors Falls.

Since willow cats are not considered minnows under Minnesota
statute, they can’t be harvested for bait from inland waters,
either. So until the law is changed, willow cats can no longer be
sold at bait shops in the region.

Brad Kaczorowski, of West End Bait Shop in Winona is one of the
largest willow cat retailers in the area. His shop has been in
operation for nearly 60 years and has always sold willow cats. That
is until the DNR put an end to sales two weeks ago.

“I have a license to collect and sell my own willow cats, and I
sell a lot of them,” Kaczorowski said. “But according to the letter
I received from the DNR on May 21, I have to stop until the law is
changed.”

Kaczorowski harvests most of the willow cats he sells in “four
or five” lakes around the Brainerd area. Although the law has been
on the books for several years, nobody looked into it as it related
to willow cats until recently.

The recent hoopla unfolded when a conservation officer
investigated the taking of willow cats after ticketing an
individual who was scooping willow cats in the Mississippi River,
said Jason Abraham, DNR information officer in St. Paul. Legally, a
person can harvest up to 24 dozen minnows for personal use with a
fishing license. Unfortunately, the individual cited didn’t have a
license and an investigation followed, according to Abraham.

“If that guy had had a license, it probably would not have been
an issue,” Kaczorowski said. “Nobody, including members of the DNR,
knew it was illegal until they started looking into it.”

The DNR agrees and has no problem changing the existing law.
According to Abraham, it’s just not as easy as sending out a press
release. It may not get changed until the 2005 legislative
session.

“State statutes can’t be changed without lawmakers’ approval,”
Abraham said. “We’re looking at a couple of options, and we’d like
to change it sooner, but we can’t take it lightly.”

DNR Fisheries Program Consultant Roy Johannes, in St. Paul, has
no problem changing the current law, but says little can be done
until 2005.

“The (DNR) Commissioner is aware of it and our goal is to make
the change, but our hands are tied,” Johannes said. “We can’t just
change an existing law to make it more convenient.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that willow cats can still
be purchased in Wisconsin for use on either side of the
Mississippi. According to the current law, Minnesota anglers who
legally obtain willow cats may use them in border waters, but bait
dealers may not import minnows from other states to sell as live
bait.

“That’s another frustrating aspect of this whole thing,”
Kaczorowski added. “I can’t sell them, but a person can drive
across the border and get them.”

Until the law is changed, Kaczorowski will be gathering
signatures on a petition he’s started for quicker action. While
getting signatures from anglers in the Winona area won’t be a
problem, it might not be enough to make a difference until
2005.

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