Dealers: Sucker minnow shortage could continue

Erhard, Minn. — It hasn’t hit every bait shop in the state, but a shortage of sucker minnows is affecting their availability for most bait dealers around Minnesota.

Those in the bait business, namely wild minnow trappers and those who sell the bait to shops around the state, blame the shortage on a double-whammy of bad weather conditions. 

“We had the perfect storm,” said Rex Campbell, a bait trapper, wholesaler, and owner of Nancy’s Bait in Grey Eagle.

First, there were the drought conditions of last summer, leaving stream and pond levels low, which drove down minnow numbers.

“Herons went in and ate the minnows,” Campbell said. “And the ponds were low. A lot of minnows died from the 90-degree water in the ponds.”

Then, last winter’s snow showed up on early ice.

“It kept piling on,” Campbell said. “Just about every pond in the state froze out.”

A lower number of suckers in the system made it more difficult to find them this spring, especially in streams, where high water allowed the lower number of remaining suckers to spread out and elude trappers, Campbell said.

“You spend a day working on bait and barely have anything to show,” Campbell said.

He said the shortage this spring likely will mean fewer suckers for the foreseeable future – into next summer, at the very least, because the live bait industry relies on fresh sucker fry every spring to keep the cycle going. Few fry were available this spring.

“I got one quart of fry this year,” Campbell said, noting that he typically takes about 10 times that amount. “That’s all I could get. I know a lot of guys that didn’t get any fry. Not only is there going to be a sucker shortage this summer, but there is going to be one all winter and next summer. The weather screwed this all up.”

Sean Sisler, a Minnesota DNR fish health consultant, said he’s heard from bait people around the state about the apparent shortage, but the records he keeps – totaling sucker production every year – are currently up to date only through 2019.

From 2009 to 2019, Sisler said, sucker production was actually on the rise, with 32,000 gallons reported statewide in 2009 and around 100,000 gallons in 2019.

“Everything after 2020 was impacted by COVID,” Sisler said. “It looks like we’re producing more suckers, and that makes sense because we export a lot of suckers.”

That raises an issue that people including Campbell would like to see happen: the banning of the exportation of minnows from the state. Exportation at a time like this only exacerbates the problem, he said.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to allow the importation of shiners has gotten nowhere at the state Capitol in recent years.

“If we can’t import, we have to shut down export,” Campbell said. “There are semi loads of bait going out of the state every week to other states. They won’t shut that down because those guys get paid a lot more money than we can pay.”

Sisler said it would take a legislative effort to shut down exportation, because the current rules allowing it are written in statute. But he noted that exporters need an extra license that costs double a regular minnow dealer’s license.

“If they are going to export, they pay a premium to do so,” Sisler said.

He speculated that the fee is higher because “you are taking Minnesota resources and selling them out of state instead of selling them to Minnesota anglers.”

One bait man who said he hasn’t been affected is Denny Fletcher, of Fletcher’s Bait in Sauk Centre.

“I don’t have a shortage,” said Fletcher, who raises his own suckers. “I’m sending excess suckers to the (Twin) Cities, but I do understand that there is a severe sucker shortage in the state of Minnesota.”

He agreed the problem is driven by weather patterns, but he also said there aren’t enough people in the bait business anymore.

“The demand is greater than the supply, and the supply will never be able to keep up with the demand for Minnesota ever again,” Fletcher said, adding that previously productive ponds are no longer productive because of agricultural practices in the state. “Too many ponds we used are no longer available for a number of reasons.”

Luke Norgren, of Rocky’s Bait in Erhard, said that he, too, did not get enough sucker eggs this year.

“That is the big problem,” Norgren said.

He agreed that it would take a couple of years to recover from the shortage.

“We are hurting, there is no doubt about that,” he said. 

Norgren said he had to ration his supply among his customers.

“You kind of split it all up evenly,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

Sisler said things can bounce back quickly.

“We’re kind of subject to the whims of nature with late springs and dry summers,” Sisler said. “We are harvesting natural resources. We try to look at what the trends are doing. Any particular year could be a hard season. If you get a couple of harder years in a row, you can get longer impacts. But things can bounce back pretty quickly with the right conditions.”

Norgren agreed that it could bounce back. At best, he said, the water will stay high and there will be a good egg take in the spring.

“By the following year, we could be sitting decent yet again,” he said.

But another scenario, he said, would prolong the shortage: another hard winter with low water and then potentially another spring with low egg take.

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