by CHRIS ROGERS
Last week, local anglers responded to proposals from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Wisconsin DNR to tighten limits on panfish, walleye, catfish, pike, and more on the Mississippi River. Both states have yet to begin their formal rulemaking processes, but DNR officials held an open house in Winona to seek public input on revising fishing regulations on the Mighty Mississippi, some of which have not changed since the 1950s.
“Currently, the populations of most fish species are in good shape and provide exceptional fishing. However, there are signs of stress,” DNR experts wrote in an explanation of their proposals. “Habitat continues to change in the aging reservoirs created by locks and dams, and for some species, the available habitat is shrinking as sedimentation reduces depth in backwater areas.” Fishing pressure is high, and invasive carp may add to the stress on native fish, officials from the two states continued. “Even though the fishery has held up well, there is concern among biologists and anglers that the fishery may not be able to withstand these stressors and high levels of harvest going into the future,” they wrote. “The review of existing regulations is an opportunity to be proactive and potentially make adjustments that will protect the quality of the fishery and the fishing opportunities that currently exist.”
The proposed changes
According to the Minnesota DNR, current bag limits allow fishermen to take up to 25 sunfish, 25 crappie, and 25 perch per day. The two DNRs are considering restricting that limit to either 10 or 15 fish of each species.
For walleye and sauger, current regulations limit anglers to keeping six fish per day, and any walleye must be over 15 inches. The proposed change would keep the minimum length requirement for walleye and introduce a maximum-size limit: anglers could only keep one walleye or sauger over 20 inches. The proposal would also lower the overall bag limit. One proposal DNR officials are considering would lower the bag limit from six to four. A second proposal would also lower the bag limit from six to four, but with a special requirement that in pools 5-9, including the Winona area, fishermen could only keep two sauger.
The bag limit for white bass would drop from 25 fish to 10 under the proposal.
Currently, Minnesota has a 10-fish bag limit for catfish, and Wisconsin’s bag limit is 25. Under the proposed change, Wisconsin would match Minnesota’s 10-fish limit and both states would adopt a limit on maximum size: anglers could only keep one catfish over 30 inches per day.
For northern pike, there is currently a daily bag limit of five with no size limit. The proposal would drop the bag limit to three fish and require that only one may be over 30 inches. Alternatively, the states are considering a bag limit of two with no maximum size limit.
The states also proposed reducing the bag limit for shovelnose sturgeon from 10 to three.
What local anglers said
Minnesota and Wisconsin absolutely should reduce the daily bag limit for panfish to 10 per species, Wabasha angler Ed Bronk said. Bronk said that, years ago, he witnessed panfish populations rebound in quantity and quality after fishing limits were tightened. If limits are tightened again, he added, “I will catch more quality fish.”
Joe Wilson agreed. Harvesting huge amounts of fish, especially in the winter, really does hurt the fish population, he stated. Like many anglers who showed up for last week’s open house, Wilson talked about how the river is changing — how the backwaters are filling in with sediment and affecting fish habitat. “It’s not an infinite resource anymore like it was when the dams were first built,” he stated.
“It’s something that needed to be done,” local fishermen Butch Johnson said of the proposed limits. “It’s time to start fishing for the future of fishing, not for filling everyone’s freezer, but for our grandkids.”
Wilson, Butch Johnson, and local fisherman Brent Johnson felt that a daily limit of 10 panfish per species was generous enough. A few decent-sized crappies make a great meal, Butch Johnson said.
Local fisherman Larry Kronebusch sees it differently. “I hope they don’t go with the 10 limit,” Kronebusch said, adding that a bag limit of 15 per species or a combined limit of 20 panfish regardless of species would be fine. “If you have a limit of five to 10 sunfish, that really doesn’t justify driving 40 miles to fish,” he stated. Kronebusch pointed out that the daily bag limit is also the legal limit for possession in Minnesota. If an angler is caught possessing more than the daily bag limit — even if the fish were caught on separate days — that is violation. Kronebusch has five children who all love to eat fish. “If they lower the limit to 10, I can’t even feed the family,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s a little extreme,” Winonan Rick Skappel agreed, referring to dropping the bag limit from 25 to 10.
Skappel and Kronebusch also had a different opinion of how the panfish fishery is doing. “The river right now is the best I’ve ever seen it,” Kronebusch said. “It’s getting better and better,” Skappel said. “They’re not declining.” Kronebusch stated, “Mother Nature has been doing fine for years. I don’t know why we want to jump in and change things. Our fishery is great here.”
For their part, Wilson, Butch Johnson, and Brent Johnson also supported limits on taking large walleye, sauger, catfish, and pike. The best-tasting fish are smaller ones, anyway, they pointed out. For the biggest fish, anglers should mainly catch and release, they argued. “I think the big fish are too good of a resource to be caught once,” Wilson stated. Butch Johnson talked about a 30-inch catfish he once caught. Another fisherman yelled at him when he threw it back: how could he? “A fish of that size is a precious resource,” Butch Johnson said. “Why not let people catch it over and over again?”
“I think fishermen are realizing that you have to control the harvest to keep a quality fishery,” Bronk said.
The Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs will continue accepting comments and surveys on the proposed regulations until November 30. After that, DNR officials from the two states will decide what they want to formally propose, and then the two states have different processes for changing regulations.
Wisconsin DNR Mississippi River Fisheries Supervisor Jordan Weeks explained that his agency would propose a rule change as part of Wisconsin’s annual Conservation Congress. Each spring, the Conservation Congress holds hearings in every county in the state, and the citizens who show up vote on whether to recommend DNR rule changes. “In Wisconsin, we’ve given the public the ability to weigh in on rules,” Weeks stated. Unfortunately, participation in the Conservation Congress is limited. He said only around 5,000-7,000 citizens statewide take part in the hearings, while around one million Wisconsinites hold fishing permits.
If the Conservation Congress supports the rule changes, the DNR’s Natural Resources Board would consider recommending the changes to the state legislature.
The rulemaking process in Minnesota is different. It is largely run by the DNR itself, with opportunities for citizens to comment and challenge the creation of the rule if they strongly disagree. Minnesota DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Kevin Stauffer said his agency has not decided when it would launch a formal rulemaking proposal, adding that it would depend on what happens in Wisconsin. DNR officials in both states want to keep their rules for the Mississippi River consistent.
For more information on the proposals or to comment on them, visit bit.ly/LakeCityAreaFisheriesMN.