New walleye regs: right thing to do or bad medicine?

Lately, the fishermen I meet ask the same question, “Why are
they fiddling with the walleye limit?”

“They” refers to DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten and state Sen.
Satveer Chaudhary, who separately announced legislative proposals
to reduce the state walleye possession limit from six to four. Sen.
Chaudhary proposed establishing a minimum length limit for
walleyes. He also wants to move the opener for the walleye season
one week earlier to avoid conflicts with Mother’s Day.
Rank-and-file anglers I’ve spoken with consider all of the above
bad ideas or needless restrictions.

None of these proposals are supported by fisheries science. They
did not originate from a groundswell of angler concern. Instead,
these proposed restrictions are what a couple of powerful guys in
St. Paul think are the “right thing to do.”

I’m not so sure the rest of us agree with them. In fact, many
anglers soon will be stung by a well-intended, but sloppy fishing
license extension the Legislature passed last year. Perhaps they,
like me, are disinclined to believe the politicians will do any
better if they start mucking around with walleye limits. Consider
the conversation I had with an older fellow at the Bluewater Café
in Grand Marais last week.

“Is it true that we don’t need a new fishing license until the
end of April?” he asked.

“You don’t need a new fishing license, but you need a new trout
stamp on March 1,” I replied.

My friend first looked confused, then incredulous. In Grand
Marais, trout fishing is what you do in March and April. Having a
two-month discrepancy in the dates for buying new fishing licenses
and trout stamps is – to put it politely – very inconvenient for
thousands of license-buyers. I explained the new rules were the
work of the Minnesota Legislature last year. Our conversation moved
to the current rumblings from St. Paul.

“Why are they messing with the walleye limit?” he asked. “They
say it won’t improve the fishing, so why not leave well enough
alone?”

“They’re also talking about a minimum length for walleyes,” I
said.

“I don’t mind the one over 20 inches rule,” he said. “I don’t
care to eat the big ones.”

“That’s a maximum size limit,” I explained. “They want a new
rule that walleyes would have to measure a certain length before
you could keep them.”

Again appearing incredulous, my friend remarked, “People would
stop fishing Devil Track Lake.”

He’s right. In this popular Cook County fishing hole, the
average walleye measures less than 14 inches – always has and –
minimum length limit or not – probably always will. Yellow perch
are not abundant in Devil Track, so walleyes grow slowly on a diet
of invertebrates. This biological reality, common to many infertile
Arrowhead lakes, can’t be fixed by fiddling with fishing rules.

I broached this topic in an earlier column, which prompted an
email conversation with retired Minnesota DNR fisheries biologist
Denny Schupp, the sage of walleye science. He is concerned applying
a statewide minimum size limit to walleyes may have unintended
consequences. He writes:

“In theory, a minimum size limit is best applied where growth
rates are fast. But even here, the pudding is rarely proved. A
common effect of a minimum size limit is that fish are stockpiled
just under the size limit increasing the competition for limited
food and slowing growth rates. Those few who get past the size
limit are cropped off nearly as fast as they reach it. South Dakota
has some beautiful data to show this in some of their shallow, very
fertile lakes. They dropped the minimum size limit when they saw
this. Big Stone and Lac qui Parle, in southern Minnesota, also
showed evidence of this after several years of a minimum size
limit. The minimum size limit has been dropped on these lakes.”

So, in an effort to improve the average size of walleyes people
bring home to eat, you run the risk of turning Minnesota into the
Land of the Quarter-Pounder. Do Minnesota anglers want to take that
chance?

When it comes to reducing the state walleye possession limit
from six to four fish (this includes not only fish in your live
well, but also fish in your freezer), existing Minnesota science
indicates the change will have minimal effect on the overall catch
or walleye populations. Most anglers are lucky to catch a couple of
walleyes when they go fishing, so whether the limit is four or six
really doesn’t matter. This is why anglers didn’t think it was
necessary to reduce the walleye limit when a similar proposal was
kicked around a few years ago.

If you move from science to the realm of common sense, where the
adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” usually applies, questions
arise. For instance, we know participation in fishing is stagnant
or declining. Catch-and-release angling is more popular than ever.
Is it possible that harvest rates already have declined as a result
of fewer people fishing and fewer keeping fish? Is there any
evidence suggesting we are over-fishing walleyes in the state?
Might the addition of new walleye restrictions lead a few more
anglers to hang up their fishing rods rather than cope with another
layer of frustrating fishing laws?

We’d be better off if DNR commissioners and state senators
collected scientific input and advice from biologists when
proposing fishing rules. After all, our fishing licenses pay for
professional fisheries science. At the very least, they ought to
consider Schupp’s observation: “Walleyes are probably the species
least in need on complex angling regulations.”

Serving up new laws, just because they’re supposedly good for
us, is bad medicine.

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