DNR OK with ending some spearing bans

St. Paul — Legislation now in the state House and Senate could cut the number of lakes in Minnesota where northern pike spearing is banned by eight. Toss in recommendations from the DNR to add a few more to the list, and nearly half of those where spearing now is banned could be dropped.

The bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, calls for removing eight lakes from the list of 26 lakes listed in the Minnesota fishing regulations.

DNR officials say they’re “comfortable” with seven of those (not Cass County’s Baby Lake), and, furthermore, would be willing to add five more lakes – a total of 12 of the 26 currently listed.

Hackbarth said the bill language was brought to him by the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. It’s something MDAA president Tim Spreck said the group has advocated for several years.

“What we’re looking for is a future with no spearing bans,” Spreck said last week. “Let’s treat everybody equally.”

Hackbarth said there’s been no opposition to the bill, though muskie advocates say that’s not the case – even though they may not have registered “official” opposition at legislative hearings.

Shawn Kellett, a vice president with the Twin Cities Chapter of Muskies, Inc., said, “We’re not happy about it.”

Besides Baby Lake, the House bill suggests the spearing ban be removed from Beers Lake (Otter Tail County), Big Mantrap (Hubbard County), Cross (Pine County), Deer (Itasca County), Lobster (Douglas County), Sugar (Wright County), and West Battle (Otter Tail County).

Dirk Peterson, DNR Fisheries chief, said the department was agreeable to removing the spearing ban on all but Baby, “while we continue to evaluate the existing (muskie) population,” he said.

Having met with spearing interests, and following internal review of other lakes on the list, Peterson said the DNR had offered up five others where the ban could be lifted: Spider, North Star, and Moose, all in Itasca County, Eagle Lake in Hennepin County, and Owasso in Ramsey County.

According to Peterson, the spearing bans date back several decades, to a time when they were implemented to eliminate the potential incidental spearing of muskies that were being established in some state lakes. Also, the DNR in some instances was stocking Shoepack-strain muskies, fish Peterson said have markings and colorization more like northern pike than the now-more-popular Leech Lake strain that are stocked.

“The regulations were useful in their time, but they’re less pertinent now,” he said.

Peterson said department officials have forwarded to legislators language to alter the current bill which, he said, could be part of an omnibus game and fish bill in the Legislature.

Chris Kavanaugh, DNR Fisheries supervisor in Grand Rapids, pointed out that some of the lakes on the current list don’t have complete bans – just bans on the winter spearing of northern pike. (Besides northern pike, dark house spearing is allowed for catfish and whitefish, and rough fish spearing also is allowed during part of the year.)

When reviewing lakes with bans a few years ago, Kavanaugh said fisheries biologists looked at a few different things to determine if the muskie population had improved. In many cases, it did, he said. But also to be considered was the fact that muskies in recent years had benefitted from greater size restrictions, as well as an improving catch-and-release ethic among anglers.

Tom Keith, president of the Twin Cities Muskies, Inc. chapter, said members hadn’t hashed out the legislation and its implications. But as an angler, Keith said he doesn’t believe micro-management via legislation addresses what’s best for the vast majority of state anglers. The legislation, he said, “favors a few, but impacts a lot.”

Muskies have been a boon to the state’s economy, he adds.

“Minnesota is a place where people come to fish muskies,” he said, noting the expenditures on things like food and lodging that help state businesses. “(Muskies) have been an extremely valuable resource.”

Also questioning the process is Rochester’s John Underhill, of the Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance and a member of the Clean Water Council, which provides guidance for spending a portion – one-third – of the Legacy Amendment proceeds.

“I’m not thrilled with the lakes being pulled off legislatively,” he said. “But I’m not opposed to … the anglers of the state saying, this (ban on certain lakes) doesn’t make any sense to us. At this point, we’re in favor of the public input process.”

Underhill said it’s unfortunate the DNR seems to be yielding to the wishes of the state’s dark-house spearers, with less regard for muskie-fishing interests, calling the lack of compromise “disappointing.”

He said the MMPA would be OK with ending pike-spearing bans if the changes included greater protection of muskies, perhaps increasing the length limit to 55 inches.

Ultimately, he said, he’d like to get the spearing ban matter behind the groups that have sparred over the years. Appointment to the Clean Water Council nearly a year ago “opened my eyes to a lot of issues,” he said. “There are bigger battles,” including clean water, aquatic invasive species, and shoreline usage.

“I’m more interested in trying to find the things we have in common,” Underhill said.

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