Minnesota DNR Fisheries: Are we still going in the right direction?

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Editor’s note: The following is a commentary written by former DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes. More information about the issue can be found in a news story and opinion piece from Editor Tim Spielman in the Aug. 13 edition of Outdoor News.

By Henry Drewes

Growing up on the East Coast, I would read every fishing magazine I could get my hands on: In-Fisherman, Fishing Facts, Field and Stream, just to name a few. I was particularly drawn to the articles about the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

My mom was my inspiration, sharing her love of fishing with me at an early age. I wasn’t sure where Minnesota was in relation to other states, but it just had to be good with all the stories about walleyes, trophy muskies, northern pike, and bass. Little did I know that one day I would land in this place of endless fishing opportunities.

After graduating from Virginia Tech, I headed west to pursue a graduate program in fisheries at South Dakota State University. Weekend trips to Minnesota confirmed the words and stories I’d read as a kid: Minnesota was a special place.

After some temporary fisheries work in Oklahoma and Montana, I finally landed a job with the Minnesota DNR, arriving on the front end of a blizzard in January 1986.

For the past 23 years, until my recent retirement, I was the regional fisheries manager in northwestern Minnesota. Previous positions with the DNR included research biologist, assistant regional manager, and fisheries program consultant – a total of 35 years of state service. I have truly enjoyed every step in this journey and have always taken pride in serving the anglers of this great state.

During my tenure with the Minnesota DNR, I had the pleasure of working on some of the state’s greatest conservation successes: the restoration of the walleye fisheries in the Red Lakes, the reintroduction and management of lake sturgeon, the implementation of progressive regulations to improve northern pike and sunfish population size structures, and the restoration of hundreds of miles of streams and rivers through the removal and/or modification of dozens of fish barriers.

Other work that was going on, through colleagues and partners, included restoring native lake trout in Lake Superior and developing an absolutely incredible brown trout fishery in southeastern Minnesota.

Minnesota’s lake and stream survey program, including the Large Lake Assessment Program, is the envy of every state in this country. Our large walleye lakes (e.g. Lake of the Woods, Leech, Upper Red, and Cass) continue to offer some of the best walleye fishing in the country, despite heavy angling pressure.

We have implemented a citizen-participation process (fisheries input groups) for many of our large lakes. These processes enabled us to implement an adaptive management program that is more responsive to fish population trends and angler concerns. In recent years, we evaluated walleye fry and fingerling stocking practices and adjusted stocking plans to use these fish in lakes where they have the greatest potential of putting fish on the end of an angler’s line.

In addition to great walleye fishing, Minnesota arguably boasts the best muskie fishing in the country. More and more anglers also are recognizing the amazing largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing we have to offer. New efforts to address northern pike and sunfish size structures using innovative regulations approaches show much promise for expanding quality angling opportunities for these species as well.

In addition, these marquee species fisheries management efforts have been directed at protecting and expanding trophy fishing opportunities for channel catfish, flathead catfish, and lake sturgeon. I can say without hesitation that sportfishing in Minnesota is alive and well!

Of course, looking forward, there are areas of concern. These include aquatic invasive species and climate change. Together, invasive species and the warming of our lakes brought on by climate change will have profound effects on many of our waters. General trends will include clearer water, more plant growth, expanding bass and sunfish populations, and declines in coldwater species such as lake whitefish, ciscoes (tullibees), and burbot (eelpout).

There are no easy solutions to these problems. We as fisheries professionals will have to adapt management programs, and anglers will have to adjust how they fish and, perhaps, what they fish for. Healthy watersheds, protection of native fish communities and their habitats, and science-based fisheries management are keys in adapting to these changes.

During my career, I had the honor and privilege of working with conservation icons including Roger Holmes, Jack Skrypek, and Ron Payer, and nationally renowned research biologists such as Denny Schupp (walleyes) and Bob Strand (father of the Leech Lake-strain muskie program). Minnesota, a leader in fisheries management, has long been a destination employer for the fisheries profession.

We (you) can take pride in knowing that the state has striven to hire the very best biologists, technicians, managers, fish culturists, habitat specialists, and administrative staff it can find. If you haven’t taken the time to visit our area fish and wildlife offices, I encourage you to do so. You will find a wealth of information and knowledgeable staff to answer your questions.

Fisheries is a field-based operation. Quite simply, that’s where the work gets done. It’s vitally important that St. Paul leadership recognizes this and continues to support our area and regional offices. Minnesota hunters and anglers want and expect the DNR to hire the best personnel and provide field offices with the resources they need to get the work done.

Recent and planned closures/mergers of wildlife offices in Bemidji, International Falls, Glenwood, Crookston, and Baudette – in the absence of public engagement or disclosure – is a particularly troubling trend. Division of Fish and Wildlife leadership is also considering merging fisheries and wildlife manager positions in the regions and the central office (habitat, research, and operations).

These “ideas,” as they have been referred to, will result in diminished services to hunters and anglers, and will blur the lines of management and funding accountability. Also quite troubling is the absence of staff and constituent participation in these discussions. I encourage conservation organizations to get involved.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge all of the great organizations I have had the privilege of working with over the years: Minnesota Bass Nation, the Minnesota Bass Federation, Muskies, Inc., the Minnesota Muskie Alliance, Northern Waters Land Trust, Trust for Public Land, the Minnesota Conservation Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and many others.

Active conservation organizations such as these, along with lake associations and sportsmen’s clubs, play a vital role in the delivery of land and water conservation. And lastly, thank you to Outdoor News for keeping hunters and anglers informed about issues of critical importance! Keep up the great work!

Drewes recently retired from his post as northwest region fisheries manager in Bemidji. He spent 35 years with the Minnesota DNR.

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