New ideas emerge for walleye opener

St. Paul – Officials in the DNR Section of Fisheries have warned
against it, but a proposal to open the walleye season a week
earlier remains in play.

State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said a new twist on
the idea could help alleviate the concerns of an earlier opener –
two slot limits: one for northern Minnesota, one for the southern
portion of the state.

The DNR as a whole neither supports nor opposes an earlier
opener, an idea that Chaudhary proposed in a letter last month to
Commissioner Mark Holsten. Climate change, Chaudhary said, has
caused walleyes to spawn earlier in the spring and negates the
potential biological effects of an earlier opener.

In at least one instance – a creek in the Bemidji area – there
is a trend over the past 35 years toward an earlier walleye spawn,
by about five days, said Don Pereira, fisheries research and policy
manager for the DNR. Fisheries managers in other parts of the state
say they don’t see indications of an earlier spawn.

“The effect is (there), but it’s not big and it’s certainly not
big enough to warrant an earlier opener,” Pereira said.

Fisheries officials believe “we really need to keep the opener
where it’s at,” he said. “If we move it earlier, it’s just going to
cause a lot of problems in the northern part of the state.”

An earlier opener would have more negative consequences in the
northern part of the state, Pereira said, because the DNR likely
would have to close more waters each spring to protect spawning
walleyes.

Also, walleyes are congregated during the spawn, and officials
worry that could lead to harvests that are too high.

“We’re evaluating (an earlier opener),” said Bob Meier, DNR
assistant commissioner. “At this point in time, we do have some
biological reasons not to do it.”

Some, like former DNR researcher Dick Sternberg, say an early
opener in the southern part of the state would make sense. Stocking
maintains most of those lakes, so an earlier opener would not hurt
them, he said.

Since walleyes grow slower in northern lakes, harvesting them
when they’re spawning could hurt populations, Sternberg said.

“In southwest Minnesota, where we have almost 100 percent of the
lakes stocked and where we don’t depend on spawning, why do we even
have a season?” he said. “We don’t have much natural reproduction.
There are a few lakes where you do, but those lakes could be
protected. They don’t have to be open.”

While Chaudhary says there’s strong support for an earlier
opener, he’s hesitant to propose two different opening dates in the
state.

“I would prefer to explore two different slots for northern and
southern Minnesota before I would consider two different openers,”
he said.

The Rainy River, for example, is open for fishing in April, and
a slot limit is in place to protect spawning walleyes.

“If there are ways we can model a slot, particularly for that
first week – model it after what we do on the Rainy River – that
would be something to consider,” Chaudhary said.

A slot limit – like a 13- or 14-inch minimum, a 19- or 20-inch
maximum, along with one over 28 inches in possession – in
conjunction with a four-walleye statewide limit would help allay
concerns about spawning fish, he said.

“Nobody is interested in hurting the fish,” Chaudhary said.

The spawn

DNR staffers collect walleye eggs at spawning runs every spring
as part of the state’s stocking program. In most cases, fisheries
managers haven’t noted earlier spawning runs.

€ During the past 35 years, the peak of egg collection has moved
up five days at the Big Lake Creek site. Spawning occurs later than
that, too, said Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries manager in
Bemidji. Over the last 10 years, there have been early and late
springs, and in 1996, the ice went out just before walleye
opener.

€ Arlin Schalekamp, DNR area fisheries manager in Fergus Falls,
hasn’t seen any shift in when the walleye spawn occurs at the Dead
River trap site.

The spawn starts around the first or second week of April, he
said.

When the spring is warm, the walleyes will spawn earlier, but
“over the last 10 or 15 or even 20 years, it has been right around
that time period,” Schalekamp said. “It just doesn’t seem like
there is an earlier walleye spawn, per se.”

€ At the Little Cutfoot Sioux run near Grand Rapids, egg-taking
typically starts around April 20 or 21, but during the past 25
years, it’s started as early as April 5 and as late as May 7, said
Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries manager in Grand Rapids.

“It’s really pretty random,” he said.

€ Almost like clockwork, egg-taking at the Pine River station
near Brainerd kicks off between April 10 and 12, according to Tim
Brastrup, DNR area fisheries manager in Brainerd.

Eggs first were collected there in 1908, and have been collected
there annually since 1922.

“It’s always the same – pretty consistent,” Brastrup said.

€ Likewise at the run near Detroit Lakes, according to Area
Fisheries Manager Dave Friedl.

“The actual egg-take here appears to be about the same as it has
been historically,” he said. “It really hasn’t shifted much that we
observed.”

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