Published March 28, 2010, 12:00 AM

Eye on pike regs: Bill aims to restrict slot limits on Minnesota lakes

Authored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, the bill would require the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to cap the number of lakes with special or experimental northern pike regulations at 60. The DNR currently has special pike regulations on about 100 lakes

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Rob Kimm grew up spearing pike on lakes around Pelican Rapids in northwestern Minnesota, but these days, he’s not exactly flavor of the month among the darkhouse spearing crowd.

Kimm, a free-lance outdoors writer and admitted pike and muskie fishing fanatic from St. Paul, is among the anglers taking exception to a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that highlights the sometimes-differing philosophies between those who spear and those who prefer to catch their pike by hook-and-line.

Authored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, the bill would require the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to cap the number of lakes with special or experimental northern pike regulations at 60.

The DNR currently has special pike regulations on about 100 lakes — a fraction of the 3,300-or-so Minnesota lakes with northern pike populations.

The regulations, all of which feature protected slots, minimum size limits or maximum size limits to prevent the harvest of certain-size pike, are designed to increase numbers of “quality”-size fish — generally defined as 24- to 36-inch northerns — and reduce the abundance of “hammer handles” that are taking over many lakes.

But spearing enthusiasts aren’t happy about the number of lakes with special pike regulations because it’s difficult to determine the length of a fish in the water. That’s where Ingebrigtsen’s bill comes into play.

“From our point of view, it’s just overregulation for the sake of overregulation with no scientific basis for doing so,” said Tim Spreck of Stillwater, Minn., president of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. “We understand there’s a certain faction of the public interested in managing for size structure. The issue we have with slots is there are a very small number of lakes in the state that can produce trophy-size pike.

“As harvest anglers, we’ve really been forgotten in the last several years. The DNR is really buckling under pressure to manage for trophies.”

Elusive balance

Rod Pierce, a fisheries research biologist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., has studied the impact of special pike regulations in the state since the agency first started protecting larger fish on some lakes in the late 1980s. He recently published a manuscript, “Long-Term Evaluations of Length Limit Regulations for Northern Pike in Minnesota,” in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.

The manuscript, which had to pass muster from a review panel of peers, looked at results from more than 20 lakes, where length limits generally raised numbers of larger pike, compared with “reference” lakes that didn’t have restrictions.

“It’s really our best tool for improving the size of pike in these populations,” Pierce said.

But for fisheries managers, Pierce said, the challenge is managing for the variety of anglers who pursue pike in the state, whether it’s trophy seekers or spearing enthusiasts who want to take a few fish home for the table.

He said the DNR has dropped the special regulations from a few lakes where they didn’t seem to work and added others at the request of groups such as local lake associations.

There’s also a risk, Pierce said, of weakening the genetics of the pike population in a particular lake when too many large fish are removed. He said length restrictions can reverse the trend where it’s occurred.

The challenge is finding a middle ground. The DNR tried to do that with a long-term management plan it released in 2008 calling for no more than 125 lakes to be considered for special regulations.

“With the length regulations, what we’ve been doing over time is gradually feeling our way up toward what is a useful balance to have these opportunities around the state,” Pierce said. “That’s kind of where we’re at right now. We’re getting pushed from all different angles. Some people want to see more (regulations) and obviously, with this legislation, there are some groups interested in less.”

As an angler, Kimm said he doesn’t think it’s out of line to have special regulations on 100 Minnesota lakes. It’s not an anti-spearing issue, Kimm said; he just doesn’t like the idea of a legislatively imposed cap.

“To me, that’s questionable on a lot of levels,” he said. “The reality is Minnesota has 1.5 million licensed anglers and 15,000 spearers. They don’t have any size restrictions on 97 percent of the lakes in the state. Their argument is that these regulations have been applied in too many lakes. It’s 3 percent — 3,300 lakes with pike and just 100 with special regs — is that really too much?”

Northwest success

According to Henry Drewes, regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, lakes such as Sallie and Melissa near Detroit Lakes and Medicine Lake and North Twin Lake near Bemidji — all in northwestern Minnesota — have yielded larger pike in netting assessments as a result of the regulations.

In the case of Sallie, where pike 24 inches or larger have been protected since 1996, DNR test-netting surveys tallied 15 pike per net larger than 24 inches in 2004, the most recent survey. In six previous surveys before the regulation went into effect, the survey recorded only one pike per net longer than 24 inches and the total never exceeded two. And the average size, DNR data shows, went from 20.6 inches before the regulation to 25.4 in 2004.

“We’ve shown you can reduce the number of small pike,” Drewes said. “Use larger pike to control small pike and put the population in a better state of balance.”

Still, skepticism persists. Ingebrigtsen, the Alexandria legislator who introduced the bill to restrict special pike regulations, said that he has seen no proof that restricting spear fishing of northern pike on 120 lakes has increased fish sizes.

“The testimony that I get from the DNR is really all over the place,” he said.

Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff and longtime spear fisher, said he is willing to compromise.

“I just want to hear the science,” he said. “If the science is there, I am willing to pull it (the bill) back.”

Ingebrigtsen also said he would consider maintaining restrictions on different numbers of lakes, saying he is not married to 60 lakes as is listed in his bill. But 120 is too many to restrict, he added.

Ingebrigtsen has been unsuccessful getting Democrats in control of the Legislature to hold a committee hearing on his proposal. If he does not get a hearing, and one is doubtful a month and a half before the Legislature adjourns, about his only chance of advancing the proposal is to amend it onto another bill making its way through the process.

Potential setback

Pierce, the DNR fisheries researcher, said his biggest concern about the bill is that it would be a setback to the 1980s, when the DNR was trying to figure out how to manage pike populations socially.

Public feedback, he said, has certainly illustrated anglers’ demand for more opportunities to catch large pike. And their preferred choice is managing particular lakes for the opportunity rather than a one-size-fits-all regulation. That was readily apparent during a series of statewide input meetings in the late 1990s, Pierce said.

“My own view is that it doesn’t really have to do with whether the regulations are effective,” Pierce said. “It’s just getting back to that social question: How many of these regulations should we have? Who are we catering to?

“Fortunately, Minnesota has a huge northern pike resource. We’ve got thousands of lakes, so the real question here is how many of these lakes should we set aside for growing larger fish? It’s a social question, not biological, and that’s where we end up in the Legislature.”

Don Davis of Forum Communications Co.’s State Capitol Bureau contributed to this story.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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