Smallmouth regs generate Zumbro River controversy

By Tim
Spielman

Associate Editor

Rochester, Minn. — They include just 12 miles of a long-running
southeast Minnesota river, but special smallmouth bass angling
regulations have created a philosophical divide between those who’d
like to protect all Zumbro River smallies and others who’d like to
fry them up.

One group – the Southeast Minnesota Public Anglers Coalition,
which would like some degree of harvest in the 12-mile stretch
that’s catch-and-release only and includes a “plunge pool” – has
threatened to take its cause to the state Legislature. Meanwhile,
the Smallmouth Alliance prefers the rules that not only protect
smallmouth numbers in an area popular with anglers, but promotes
“quality-size” fish.

DNR officials say they’re doing what members of the public
overwhelmingly supported when the rules were proposed.

“At public meetings, most people were supportive (of the
smallmouth restrictions),” said Kevin Stauffer, area fisheries
manager for the DNR in Lake City. “It wasn’t unanimous, but it
never is.”

Some history. Stauffer said the first experimental regulation
was placed on a 2-mile stretch of the Zumbro in Wabasha County.
That was a 9-inch maximum size limit implemented in 1986. Ten years
later, that experimental regulation was changed to a special reg,
“essentially making it permanent,” and changing the 9-inch maximum
to catch and release only. In 2001, the reach was extended to
Zumbro Falls, making it 12 miles long. At that point, the plunge
pool wasn’t included. That proposal came in 2002, and the pool was
added to the special regulation the following year.

“Throughout all the changes, there was a lot of support for more
restrictive regs,” Stauffer said.

Creel surveys in the 1980s showed high harvests, he said. Groups
like the Smallmouth Alliance expressed support for regulations that
might increase the size of Zumbro smallies.

But there was opposition when the popular plunge pool was added.
It’s there that many anglers like to fish from the banks.

Back in ’99, when the DNR had to decide which direction to go,
it based its decision on the fact that 90 percent of anglers
questioned during the creel survey said they released smallies they
caught. Was there even a need for a special regulation? After all,
people already were releasing smallmouths. Or, if the special
regulation were implemented, it wouldn’t affect many anglers,
anyway. They already were releasing the fish, according to the
survey.

Stauffer acknowledges that the regulations aren’t meant to
protect Zumbro smallies from disappearing.

“Did we need to protect a vanishing fishery? No,” he said. “And
at this point, we’re not sure if it will help in terms of
quality.”

Stauffer said the department didn’t anticipate these special
regulations becoming a sore spot with anglers.

“This is a special regulation; there is no formal sunset date,”
he said. “But we didn’t see this one coming back.”

Jim Kehoe, of Pine River (near Rochester), has been appointed
spokesperson for the SE Minnesota Public Anglers Coalition, though
he said his interest is limited to the Zumbro, while the MPAC
supporters have fought special regulations in other parts of the
state, including Green Lake in Kandiyohi County. More specifically,
Kehoe said harvest should be allowed in the plunge pool, if only
because there’s no scientific reason it shouldn’t.

“There’s no biology, no evidence (about smallie overharvest).
You go there and the bass are jumping all over,” he said. “There
was a claim of heavy harvest, but there’s no evidence of heavy
harvest.

“The average fisherman who wants to take fish home is being
ignored,” he said.

Southeast Minnesota PAC correspondence to media outlets and
officials has accused the DNR of yielding to demands of “special
interest groups,” in this case the Smallmouth Alliance.

Stauffer disagrees. He points out that during the creel survey
of 1999, anglers surveyed supported catch and release, even if it
didn’t improve the size structure of Zumbro smallies in the 12-mile
stretch.

Tom Helgeson, publisher of Midwest Fly Fishing magazine,
supports what the Smallmouth Alliance promotes – protection of fish
these days subjected to growing fishing pressure.

“I believe in good management, and special regulations are part
of good management,” Helgeson said. “Too many people these days
treat our lakes and rivers like fast-food restaurants.”

Helgeson said he didn’t believe special regulations implemented
by the DNR were “beyond challenge;” he called the Southeast
Minnesota PAC’s challenge “way off base.”

Helgeson said some of the active participants of the PAC played
roles in removing special smallie regulations from Green Lake.
Getting rid of such regulations, he said represented a “distorted
position.”

The group – known locally as “Walleye Focus” – was successful
last year in removing a slot limit for smallmouth bass, and this
spring, the smallmouth bass rules will follow state regs. Special
northern pike regulations also were dropped by the DNR. The special
rules for bass and northerns have been in place since 1997.

In the case of Green Lake, those against special regs threatened
to take the matter to the Legislature. While that didn’t take place
regarding Green, the same threat has been made in the
southeast.

In fact, members of the Southeast Minnesota PAC have drafted
legislation already. Kehoe said he didn’t have a role in writing
the bill.

But recently, members of the DNR met with local legislators and
angling afficionados from both sides of the smallie aisle.
Compromise seemed a possibility, Stauffer said.

The DNR, because of its investment into special regulations,
wants to collect data for the next couple years from the
catch-and-release area of the Zumbro, so that when public meetings
are held, “we can say this is what we know so far,” Stauffer
said.

“In 2008, we may look at protection of larger fish and allowing
some harvest as well,” he said.

One of the legislators present at the most recent DNR meeting
was state Sen. Dave Senjem, a Republican from Rochester. He said
he’ll take a cautious approach when it comes to legislation
directed toward the Zumbro.

“There are two perspectives and they’re both legitimate,” he
said. “I’m not inclined to run too fast on this one.”

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