Growing bigger gills
Olee McDonald still has a couple of nearby Minnesota lakes where he can go to catch big - and we're talking legitimately large, Charles Atlas-sized, bona-fide-and-not-your-wannabe 1-pound - bluegills. But 15 years ago, McDonald laments, he had se...
Olee McDonald still has a couple of nearby Minnesota lakes where he can go to catch big - and we're talking legitimately large, Charles Atlas-sized, bona-fide-and-not-your-wannabe 1-pound - bluegills. But 15 years ago, McDonald laments, he had seven or eight such lakes.
"Those big fish just aren't out there like they used to be," said McDonald, a Hawley, Minn., resident. "We've seen a big-time drop-off, no doubt about it."
Data collected by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources supports that observation. Both test-netting and a study of a bait-store fishing contest that ran from 1930 to 1987 in Park Rapids have confirmed what panfish anglers like McDonald have witnessed first-hand: The average size of bluegills and the number of trophy fish have declined precipitously in the past several decades.
"One of the biggest complaints we get is about small sunnies," said Pete Jacobson, a fisheries biologist for the DNR in Detroit Lakes. "People want bigger sunfish."
The challenge for the DNR, then, has become this: What can be done to bring back the big bluegills?
The main answer, according to Jacobson, is obvious enough: Don't condemn as many to the frying pan.
Application of that simple solution, however, isn't easy and has forced the DNR to perform a balancing act.
First things first, however. According to a seven-year study conducted by the DNR from 1996-2002, drastically lowering sunfish bag limits on certain lakes can increase the size of bluegills.
The DNR took eight small lakes and lowered the daily bag limit for sunfish from the then-statewide limit of 30 to 10 on four of them (the statewide limit has since been reduced to 20). The limit on the other four lakes remained at 30.
Then the DNR monitored the lakes each year by test-netting them. At the end of the study period, it found the largest bluegills in the reduced-limit lakes went from 6½ inches to 8 inches. In the lakes in which the limit remained at 30, the largest bluegill size remained at 6½ inches.