ST. PAUL - Minnesota's simmering civil war of game fish - muskies vs. walleyes - has flared up at the state Capitol.
In response to a yearslong state effort to expand muskie stocking, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have proposed a sweeping bill that would turn back the clock on recent victories for muskie fishing enthusiasts.
The proposal sides squarely with groups of walleye anglers and lake associations who for years have been leery of the muskellunge, the Department of Natural Resources, and, to some extent, those who fish for muskies, a larger, less-common cousin of northern pike.
The bill would even allow spearing of muskies on some lakes, potentially re-opening an old wound within the fishing community.
Here are some of highlights of the bill:
- No more new muskie lakes. The bill would put a moratorium on the DNR's plan to slowly increase the number of waters where muskies are stocked. Both walleyes and muskies are native to Minnesota, but in some waters, the populations - of either fish - are fully reliant on stocked fish reared in state hatcheries. Under the bill, any money saved from not stocking muskies would have to be spent on walleye stocking.
- County board veto power. Boards would be able to overrule the DNR's fish stocking plans and could dictate what fish the DNR should - or shouldn't - stock in any lake within that county. This level of local control would be unprecedented in Minnesota fish and wildlife management in modern history.
- Minimum muskie size lowered to 20 inches on some waters. On waters where muskies are neither native nor stocked, the minimum size to keep a muskie would be lowered to 20 inches. Under pressure from organized groups of muskie aficionados, muskie minimum sizes have been increasing for years in Minnesota as a way to grow larger and larger trophies. Currently, the minimum size is 54 inches, making it essentially a catch-and-release endeavor.
- Otter Tail County muskie stocking ban. Home to a number of lakes that have yielded potential state-record muskies, Otter Tail County is also the epicenter of the controversy. The bill would ban stocking of muskies anywhere in the county until at least 2023, and stocking could only resume if a "stakeholder group" recommends they be stocked. It would also appropriate $50,000 to the University of Minnesota to study the effects of muskie stocking on native fish in the county.
- Muskie spearing. On waters where muskies are neither native nor stocked - so, in lakes where muskies have migrated - they could be speared through ice from "dark houses." Dark house spearing has traditionally targeted northern pike. Spearing enthusiasts saw their lakes limited for years in efforts to protect muskies, a contentious progression. But a detente between the adversaries emerged a decade ago, and now spearing is open on nearly every lake in the state - only for pike, catfish and lake whitefish. Both walleyes and muskies are protected from spearing. Allowing muskies to be speared, even on lakes without stocked or naturally reproducing populations, is tantamount to fighting words for muskie supporters.
What's the science?
Officially, the controversy comes down to this: Some, notably property owners along some lakes, claim muskies are damaging walleye populations, while muskie supporters - and the DNR - say there's no science to back that up.
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, the chief sponsor of the bill, suggested the science isn't set on the question. "It goes back and forth with the science as to what they do to (other) game fish," he said.
That's a stretch. Researchers in Minnesota and Wisconsin have not found walleye populations suffer from muskie stockings. In fact, studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found on some types of lakes, walleyes might benefit. Wisconsin researchers have found it's possible to overstock muskies, with stocking far more aggressive than what Minnesota does, but the victims weren't other fish; it was simply that the muskies didn't grow well.
In 2015, the Pelican Lake Property Owners Association sued the DNR to try to halt muskie stocking on Pelican, where muskies have been planted regularly since the late 1970s. After hearing arguments from the group and the DNR, Otter Tail County District Judge Waldemar Senyk rejected the property owners' arguments, concluding muskie stocking wouldn't harm the lake.
In truth, the issue cuts deeper than science.
What's really going on?
"This has been brewing for some time," Ingebrigtsen acknowledged. "There are philosophical and social issues that are certainly part of this."
In broad strokes, a typical Minnesota walleye angler is anyone with a bucket of bait, a rod and a motorboat. It's the state fish and the state's most sought-after fish - and a fish fry dinner is often part of the goal.
A typical muskie angler has several rods and an arsenal of pricey lures and is best served aboard the deck of a high-performance fishing boat that costs in excess of $20,000 - and he wouldn't dream of killing one.
If the walleye is the lunch pail of Minnesota waters, the muskie is dinner out (without the eating).
Ingebrigtsen said he's working for the lunch-pail crowd, which might be less organized but easily outnumbers the dinner-out crowd.
"Really and truly, the state fish is what everyone goes up to the cabin to catch," he said. "Way more people want walleye than muskie, simple as that. And the muskie guys, they're not going to lose opportunities. There are plenty of places for them to fish."
A public hearing is scheduled for Monday night, March 26, at the Capitol, and groups on both sides are expected to show a strong presence.
The issue cuts across party lines, so its likelihood of success is unclear.
Ingebrigtsen indicated it's possible the bill could change, and muskie advocates said they fear the core issue of stripping the DNR of its authority to stock fish in state waters is the ultimate goal.
Ingebrigtsen introduced the measure with the support of Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Gazelka said Thursday he will remove his name from the bill. He didn't say he no longer supports it, but rather that he doesn't want his sponsorship to influence how the bill proceeds. "I want to let the process play out," he said.
State Sen. Carrie Rudd, R-Breezy Point, who chairs the environment and natural resources committee, where the bill currently sits, said she's "1,000 percent against it."
When asked if she has a sense of how her colleagues feel, she said, "I honestly don't know. Many people aren't really engaged in this debate like I've been, so a lot of them are trying to figure it out."