Commentary: Why four-walleye limit is good for Minnesota anglers

Walleyes Bucket
And who can argue with this one: Want to harvest extra fish? Maybe have a big fish fry? Take a kid, veteran, senior, friend, or spouse fishing! That is what fishing is supposed to be about. 

By Nate Blasing

Gary Barnard’s March 28, 2021 commentary in Outdoor News, in which he paints a proposal to limit Minnesota anglers to four walleyes per day – with one over 20 inches – as a sneak attack ignores its generous coverage in this newspaper four of the past five weeks, and at various public forums for at least six years.

According to Grand Rapids area fishing guide Tom Neustrom, in 2015, the 16 members of the state’s Walleye Advisory Committee nearly unanimously supported the idea and recommended moving the proposal forward. More recently, Walleye Alliance, Inc. staff and engaged citizens have presented this topic at DNR roundtables and numerous public meetings, in radio interviews on multiple stations, and at several fishing seminars across the state.

For the past two years, the statewide four-walleye bag limit proposal has been brought forth by the group Walleye Alliance, Inc. The Walleye Alliance, Inc. is a nonprofit group made up of anglers, tournament fishers, and fishing guides from across the state. Our group’s mission statement is to “advocate, educate, and promote responsible walleye fishing in Minnesota.”

We first approached Sen. Carrie Ruud two years ago about possibly being the legislative point person for this effort. She authored Senate File 12 for the 2021 legislative session. We thank Sen. Ruud for seeking citizens’ viewpoints and supporting her constituents’ initiatives where they make sense – that is how representative government is supposed to work.

Sen. Ruud and the Walleye Alliance, Inc. have discussed this effort with anglers, lake associations, sporting groups, and the resort community at great length with the intent to be very transparent. The feedback from those numerous discussions were similar: overwhelming support of the initiative.

Mr. Barnard’s points solely highlighting biologic aspects of walleye regulations miss about half the point. All fishing regulations have intertwined social and biological aspects that are inseparable. When people disagree about aspects of a proposed regulation, it often falls upon the DNR to make a biological justification to limit anglers.

In this case, anglers have brought this limit request to the DNR and Legislature time and again. We were thrilled to hear that the DNR, having worked with citizens and analyzed the proposal in totality, is supporting it. That is how the DNR is supposed to work.

Still, we can debate the biological merits of the proposed regulation.

In Minnesota’s largest lakes, where natural reproduction creates strong walleye year-classes that drive the engine of outstate tourist-based economies, this regulation does not override the existing special regulations. Still, these lakes have been great proving grounds. They already have a bag limit of four walleyes, and it seems to be socially accepted and produces some biological savings in high-pressure fisheries. When a walleye is released that would otherwise have been kept, it isn’t wasted. They often are caught again. Recycling fish is a proven way to boost an angler’s catch rate and increase an angler’s satisfaction, no matter the lake type.

The next tier of destination walleye fisheries are large, 1,000- to 15,000-acre lakes that are supported by fry stocking. Five of these fisheries, totaling 43,000 acres, are located in the Brainerd area, where Walleye Alliance, Inc. is based. The Brainerd area is probably the poster child for dozens of these types of fisheries.

Creel data show that these lakes’ walleyes are harvested at unsustainable rates in some years. Here, the biological data do not show the recruitment response promised by Mr. Barnard, a retired DNR Fisheries supervisor. With walleye abundance at relatively low levels, recruitment has been historically low during the past six years, likely due to the effects of zebra mussels.

In addition, the carrying capacity appears to have decreased. If the pie is smaller, perhaps the slices should be smaller as well.

Furthermore, biologists tell me that there will be more zebra mussel-infested lakes in the future, not fewer. They also have published papers that show our changing climate shifting habitat advantages toward bass and panfish over walleyes. A proactive approach seems prudent here on the dozens of similar lakes statewide.

In walleye fingerling-stocked lakes, if catch rates are low, no harm will be done under a four-fish bag, and anglers won’t be asked to sacrifice anything. If the bite gets hot, recycling a few fish, as stated above, can spread out the harvest, boost catch rates, and increase angler satisfaction. The opportunity for a released walleye to be caught again is very valuable.

Opportunity in these lakes is why the DNR is willing to absorb the higher costs to stock fingerlings. Recycling walleyes under the proposed regulation does not diminish the return on investment; it increases it.

There are strong arguments for lowering the walleye bag limit for primarily social reasons. Equity of harvest opportunity is a big one. The Walleye Alliance, Inc. hears frequent complaints that the most avid of anglers catch most of the fish. Why not save a few for those who don’t get as many chances at them? The beauty here is that the avid anglers are those who favor the limit reduction the most. They are volunteering to reduce their harvest.

One of the best arguments I’ve heard comes from other retired DNR biologists who published a paper – Cook, Goeman, Radomski, Younk and Jacobson, 2001: “Creel Limits in Minnesota: A proposal for Change, Fisheries 26(5):19-26.” They wrote that lower limits help increase angler satisfaction, because (lower limits) provide a more realistic standard of good fishing. They proposed a walleye limit of three, not four.

Consistency and simplicity in state fishing regulations is requested, and sought after. Lake of the Woods, Rainy, Namakan-Kabetogama, Upper Red, Leech, Vermilion, Mille Lacs, Pepin, and neighboring states – Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Michigan all have daily walleye limits lower than six. So does Ontario. How bad can a daily limit of four be?

Stakeholders and fisheries managers could still choose a six-walleye bag (or more) as a special regulation on select waters if warranted. The burden of placing special regulations is simply shifted to those who want aggressive harvest rather than keeping it on those who prefer a slightly more conservative approach.

And who can argue with this one: Want to harvest extra fish? Maybe have a big fish fry? Take a kid, veteran, senior, friend, or spouse fishing! That is what fishing is supposed to be about.

These are all reasons why a vast majority of people with whom we’ve spoken support the limit reduction, while few people have voiced opposition. It’s a different world now compared with when the 1956 six-fish bag regulation was put in place. I hope we aren’t having this same debate in 2026.

Early in the 2021 legislative session, we had a true bipartisan bill initiated by Sen. Ruud, a Republican from Breezy Point and House author Rep. Rob Ecklund, a DFLer from International Falls, supported by the DNR as an executive branch agency. It appears politics are getting in the way, with Ecklund declining to give HF 100 a hearing thus far. Despite numerous attempts to reach him, we have not received a response.

But there is still time to let him and other legislators know what you think.

Contact:

  • Ecklund at
    rep.rob.ecklund@house.mn
  • Rep. Rick Hansen at
    rep.rick.hansen@house.mn
  • Sen. Ruud at
    sen.carrie.ruud@senate.mn
  • Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen at sen.bill.ingebrigtsen@senate.mn

Also contact your local legislators.

Nate Blasing is president of the Walleye Alliance, Inc.

Categories: Walleye

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