LAKE CITY -- Curt Horn put a creative spin on the Department of Natural Resources proposal to reduce fish limits on the Mississippi River: "It would be easier to get a limit.”
If getting a limit of walleye or sauger was in his plans late last week, the Rochester angler could have used one that is less than the current six.
He was fishing with about 10 others on the end of the old breakwater on Lake Pepin, a natural reservoir of the river, and he and another angler had each caught just one keeper sauger in a few hours. He said he also caught a few smaller ones that were put back, but fishing was slow, perhaps because of a major mayfly hatch that week.
Horn said he’s telling others about the proposal because "it’s a good idea. Lowering the limit would be good, because the quality nowadays is not as good."
The only thing he doesn’t like is the one limit that wouldn't change, which is the 14-inch minimum for smallmouth and largemouth bass, If you’re going to keep some bass, it’s better to keep those 12 to 14 inches, he said.
Others didn’t react quite as positively when he mentioned the idea. "Some of them are disappointed because they like catching a lot of fish," he said.
Mike Pierce, owner of River Valley Outfitters in Wabasha, said "Most of the fisherman are for it; I have not heard anything against it. They would like to see the quality and size of fish increase." When perch are spawning in shallows, such as around Wilcox landing south of Wabasha, two anglers can take 50 large fish, and that’s a lot, he said.
Actually, getting a limit isn’t that big a deal today, he said.
He’s right. When the river limits were set several decades ago, one of the first questions asked after time on the water was "Did you get your limit?"
Today, it’s more "how was your day?" or "catch any big ones?" Many anglers are geared more toward catching larger fish because they are more of a challenge or using tackle that requires more finesse and skill.
The DNR didn’t propose the regulations because the game fish are in trouble, said Kevin Stauffer, DNR fisheries supervisor in Lake City. "Pretty much all of these species are doing well," he said. The DNR has a lot of data for pool 4, which includes Pepin and parts of the river, but not as much farther down, he said.
One fish that seems to be on a downward trajectory, however, are white bass. That seems to be because of a change in habitat. Perch and northern, however, seem to be doing a bit better.
Instead, the change was proposed in large part for social, not biological, reasons, he said. Since the 1940s and 1950s, when many of the river limits were set, angling pressure is much higher. Also, anglers have dramatically better boats and tackle -- electronics weren’t even heard of in the 1940s. Because we’re so much better equipped, most anglers have taken to releasing many or all their fish.
Meetings held along the river more than a year ago found most anglers think limits are just too high. In some cases, they are much higher than inland waters, such as those for crappies and sunfish.
Second, the DNR wanted to make the regulations match those of Wisconsin, because Minnesota anglers can legally fish with a Minnesota license on the Wisconsin side (it’s open railroad-tracks-to-railroad-tracks). The limits are much the same right now, he said. The goal is to publish the proposal in the Minnesota state register this month, and they would go into effect next year. Wisconsin is also in the process of changing its regulations, he said.
Finally, the proposed rules are looking to the future, Stauffer said. He’s not saying he believes fish and fishing will begin a downwards slide soon, but habitat has been slowly degrading because the locks-and-dam system doesn’t allow the Mississippi to act like a river.
The regulations are more conservative because the DNR can’t react quickly to any changes in fish populations (they have been looking at these possible changes for nearly a decade), so it’s better to be more conservative now, he said.
The rules are looking for a balance, he said. "What is that sweet spot between the biology and sociology of it?" he said. Stauffer thinks they have found it in the new regulations.