Controversy surrounds Pelican Lake muskies

Fergus Falls, Minn. — For three and a half decades, muskies have been stocked in Otter Tail County’s Pelican Lake, a 4,000-acre lake just a few miles west of Detroit Lakes and a half-hour drive east from Fargo-Moorhead. But muskies there have their detractors, including those who say the fish not only eat loons, but they frighten women and small children.

They’re also to blame, some say, for poor walleye fishing.

Dave Majkrzak, a past president and current member of the group the Pelican Lake Property Owners Association, and owner of a home on the lake, is leading the charge to end muskie stocking in the lake, and perhaps reduce the statewide 54-inch minimum size for Pelican in order that more fish might be kept and killed. In his and other members’ opinion, there are too many of the predators in Pelican.

The group has filed a petition for an environmental assessment of the influence of muskies, and has asked the DNR not to stock them this year. Majkrzak said a court injunction will be requested if the DNR proceeds against the wishes of the PLPOA.

For walleye anglers, Majkrzak said, it’s tough to fish “without having a muskie snap one of your walleyes in half.”

Further, according to Majkrzak, “People are saying they don’t want their granddaughter sitting on a dock with a 5-foot fish lying under it.”

And, he adds, “Three or four different ladies have said they’re afraid to go in the water anymore now that they’ve seen the size of the fish.”

Beyond those concerns, Majkrzak said the DNR doesn’t have enough information regarding muskies in the lake, and that the fish are hurting other populations.

In Fergus Falls, Jim Wolters, DNR fisheries supervisor there, won’t deny muskies might be eating a duckling here or there, but adds that a big largemouth bass, too, might be inclined to eat a small duck if the opportunity presents itself. But regarding other fish suffering due to the presence of muskies, that’s something he said just isn’t happening.

And, he adds, the department has the data that show it.

“There are no negative impacts,” Wolters said. “Our net catches are our data,” he said, adding that surveys have been done since the 1950s, including about a dozen since 1972. Along with that have been three or four muskie assessments.

This year, because of concerns regarding muskies, the effort to collect information regarding both muskies and other fish was stepped up a bit. Muskies were sampled with nets and electrofishing gear in the spring, with 44 fish collected; five of them were over 50 inches. The DNR set about 30 percent more gill nets this time around, Wolters said, and Little Pelican was included in the assessment work.

“The idea was to get a length frequency (the overall size of the muskies in the lake), mark them, and go back in the spring (2016) to get a population assessment,” he said.

In Minnesota, Wolters said, the DNR stocks low levels of muskies – in not just Pelican, but other lakes in which they’re stocked.

“We manage for high-quality, low-density, and that’s what we expect to achieve,” he said.

Regarding the five muskies sampled that exceeded 50 inches, “That’s success for us,” Wolters said.

Majkrzak said he’s asked the department about the muskie density in the lake – how many fish there are. But it’s a question that hasn’t been answered, he said.

“They don’t know how many muskies are in the lake, but they’re putting muskies in the lake,” he said.

Pelican formerly was stocked every other year with muskies. It’s now stocked annually at a lower rate – 813 fingerlings each year, or .5 per littoral acre.

Wolters said survey and assessment data are what the department uses for lake management, and they suggest muskies aren’t negatively influencing other fishes.

“This is our data. This is what we do,” Wolters said. “Whatever the population estimate is (to be determined next spring), there is no impact on the game fish population there.”

That, he said, includes walleyes, whose gill-net catch rate in  2011 was more than 12 per net lift, right at the historical average. According to the survey report, that was the third-highest catch rate on record. The fish ranged from about 8 to 26 inches, and included “strong” 2008 and 2009 year-classes. 

During the spring assessment, the walleye catch rate was about 10.3 per gill net, “similar to the lake’s average gill-net catch rate,” Wolters said in an email.

Walleyes are stocked every other year at a rate of 1.625 million fry each time.

Further, members of the property owners association have stocked walleye fingerlings, and there’s also a degree of natural reproduction in the lake, Wolters said.

Spring assessments also showed the number of bluegills was higher in the lake, although the size structure had declined. Crappie numbers increased, too, and the size of those fish was better than those of the Lida lakes and Franklin, all of which have special crappie regulations.

Yellow perch reached an all-time population high, something that Wolters attributes to another factor: pike numbers have been trending downward.

“To be honest, I’m really surprised the yellow perch (catch) rate just sky-rocketed,” he said.

In an email, he wrote: “The pike numbers have gone down and the average size has gone up. This is basically what we are trying to do in lakes infested with ‘hammer-handle’ pike with the new northern pike zone concept in the north-central zone – protecting medium-sized northern pike, thus maybe getting some predation on the smaller pike and allowing anglers to keep up to 10 smaller pike if they want.”

The pike catch rate was about 3.5 per net this spring.

Like Wolters, Brett Waldera, president of Fargo-Moorhead Muskies, Inc., believes muskies have helped trim the number of smaller, more voracious northerns in Pelican – a benefit to other fish species, especially a primary forage, yellow perch.

It’s created a more balanced fishery in the lake, Waldera said, something some people don’t comprehend.

Years ago, he said, lakes typically had larger – 20 pounds in some instances – northern pike. That’s not the case anymore.

“Without those upper-echelon larger fish, a lake gets out of balance,” Waldera, of West Fargo, N.D., said.

What about walleye fishing? Majkrzak said catching them has gotten tougher to that point that fishermen are skipping Minnesota in order to fish North Dakota’s Devil’s Lake instead.

Waldera said it’s likely walleye fishing simply has changed, something forced by the discovery of zebra mussels about six years ago, and the subsequent clearing of the water because of the expansion of those filter feeders since then.

But, he adds, tournament walleye anglers continue to find success on Pelican; the number of fish per angler hour in local tournaments is higher there than on other walleye meccas – lakes like Cormorant and Otter Tail, which don’t contain muskies.

“The (walleye) tourney results have gotten better (on Pelican) every year,” Waldera said.

Wolters points out that the Fargo-Moorhead Walleyes Unlimited group is part of the Pelican Lake Workgroup, formed a year ago to discuss the muskie issue. He said that organization has said it’s OK with muskie stocking in Pelican.

According to Waldera, muskies were stocked several years ago in both Pelican and Detroit lakes to give muskie anglers greater opportunity closer to home. Before that, he said, muskie fishers had to travel to Leech Lake to get a fix. He said muskie fishing is a growing sport.

“The enthusiasm behind it is growing, especially with the younger folks,” Waldera said.

That said, the fact remains that opposition to an expansion of muskie-fishing lakes remains. Wolters said the department is considering six lakes, five of which could be stocked soon with muskies. Three of them – Lizzie, Loon, and Franklin – are in the Fergus Falls area. Wolters said he doesn’t expect all three to be selected, and that the lake associations of all three have concerns about the potential introduction of muskies to those waters.

The other three lakes under consideration are Big Marine in the metro’s Washington County, Gull Lake by Brainerd in Cass County, and the Fairmont chain of lakes in Martin County.

Time and meeting

Wolters describes as “unbelievable” the extra time involved in addressing the Pelican muskie concerns. Five different kinds of surveys and assessments were conducted this spring, but he says those were “what was needed to address the concerns.”

More time has been taken to talk to people and groups both pro-muskie and anti-muskie, he said, including interviews with media, local and state.

In the meantime, although he said no legislation regarding muskie stocking is in the works, state Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has agreed to meet with various parties later this month in Otter Tail County.

“I’d like to have more data from the DNR about (muskies’ effect) on the lake,” Nornes said. Regarding Landwehr’s trip north, he said, “I’m pleased he’s willing to do that.”

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