Published March 08, 2008, 12:00 AM

Shiner minnows in short supply for Minn. anglers, bait shops

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s the bait that catches fish. Walleyes particularly. Better than a fathead, a golden shiner flashes in the water, attracting predators big, small and in between.

By: AP wire report, West Central Tribune, The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s the bait that catches fish. Walleyes particularly. Better than a fathead, a golden shiner flashes in the water, attracting predators big, small and in between.

But a shiner shortage has arisen. Even the state’s little-known shiner “black market” — which for years helped supply Minnesota anglers — has dried up, leaving fish seekers — some of them — high and dry.

Turns out, it wasn’t whiskey or drugs Minnesotans were smuggling into the state from Wisconsin all these years.

It was golden shiners.

As in minnows.

Perhaps the most effective bait Minnesota anglers use, golden shiners have long been a staple of minnow buckets from Warroad to Winona.

But importing these or any other minnows into Minnesota violates a law written decades ago by the state’s bait industry. As Phil Koep — widely considered the granddaddy of Minnesota bait rearers and dealers — says:

“It wasn’t the DNR that wrote that law. It was my dad and others in the bait industry. They wanted to keep competitors from outside the state from selling bait here.”

A good idea then.

And might still be.

Except for one big problem: Minnesota, it turns out, hasn’t been producing all of the golden shiners sold in this state. Some were instead reared in Arkansas and delivered to Wisconsin bait dealers, who in turn sold them to Minnesota bait dealers and retailers, who in turn sold them to Minnesota anglers.

Which, though illegal, seemed to work for everyone.

Then along came an ugly fish disease called VHS — viral hemorrhagic septicemia.

Working its way west from the East Coast, VHS is killing thousands of fish, and now threatens the Midwest’s multibillion-dollar sportfishing industry.

Already, VHS has stricken fish in Wisconsin.

“VHS is a very serious disease, and we want to keep it out of Minnesota waters if we can,” said Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Ron Payer.

So serious is VHS that the federal government, in the form of the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service or APHIS, has imposed strict rules on the movement of fish and water in the eight Great Lakes states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Faced with the prospect of severe criminal penalties, and also worried about possibly introducing VHS into Minnesota from Wisconsin, Minnesota bait retailers and dealers no longer seem willing to chance the “Wisconsin connection” to keep their customers awash in golden shiners.

Instead, the state’s supply has dried up.

How big of a deal is the shortage?

Very big. Not only do shiners catch more fish than fathead minnows — by far the most widely sold bait in Minnesota — they’re more durable, particularly in winter.

One way to again supply Minnesota anglers with sufficient numbers of golden shiners is to open the state’s border to imports directly from Arkansas.

It’s there that shiner production is in full swing.

Ironically, Minnesota bait dealers — whose forerunners closed the state’s borders to imported minnows — favor this option.

“I think we should be able to import them, particularly in winter,” Koep said.

Not so fast, says the DNR, noting that VHS isn’t the only concern the agency has about importing bait.

Invasive species (plant and animal alike) also present a threat, said DNR commercial fisheries program consultant Roy Johannes.

“Arkansas doesn’t have VHS-infected fish,” Johannes said, “but it is possible that other diseases or invasive species could be imported to the state with golden shiners or other bait.”

But ... Wisconsin allows Arkansas golden shiners to be imported.

“True,” Johannes said. “But we have to be very careful about invasive species in Minnesota.”

No one knows exactly what percentage of golden shiners sold in Minnesota over the years have been illegally imported from Arkansas via Wisconsin.

But the amount probably was sizable, said Payer, the DNR fisheries chief.

“If you look at what Minnesota produces for shiners and all of the sudden you have a shortfall,” Payer said, “it would indicate a fair number of fish were coming through from other sources.”

Officially, the numbers look like this:

In 2005, 217,658 gallons of fathead minnows were reared and sold in Minnesota. Add to that number another 90,000 gallons of white suckers.

And golden shiners?

A comparably paltry 32,418 gallons.

Question: If golden shiners are so popular, why was production so low?

“They’re difficult to raise up here,” Johannes said. “Arkansas has a 10-month growing season, while we basically have a three-month season.”

For that reason, a shiner raised in Minnesota requires as many as three years of care before it reaches its ideal length of 4 inches.

Shiners also don’t play well with other minnows, so they have to be raised alone.

“They do best in ponds where there are no other fish,” Johannes said.

Most minnow rearing in Minnesota is done in wetlands and similar wild waters. By comparison, man-made ponds (such as those in Arkansas and other Southern states) are relatively few.

Minnesota bait dealers historically have had ready access to the state’s wetlands, many of which are tapped for their wild fathead populations.

But rearing pond access is more difficult today, Koep said, in part because competition for the ponds has heated up.

Wildlife officials, for example, believe minnows in wetlands may harm their fundamental ecology, making them less beneficial to ducks and other wetland wildlife.

“I don’t have the ponds I once did,” Koep said. “I’m losing more than I’m gaining.”

Complicating matters, and further reducing the chance that golden shiners will be imported into Minnesota anytime soon, the DNR has proposed to the Legislature this session that it be allowed to impose still tighter rules governing the movement of fish and water within the state.

“Movement of fish and water around the country is being scrutinized a lot more carefully,” Payer said. “Maybe eventually we’ll find ways to safely move it without worrying about also moving diseases or invasive species with it.

“But until we do, we’ll probably have to have new restrictions.”