McFeely: Minnesota bluegill proposal deserves public support
Popular lakes in Otter Tail, Becker counties would have five-fish limits, but the goal of jumbo sunfish is worth it.
A proposal by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would reduce the sunfish limit on many lakes to five, a drastic drop for a species that has long been counted on to provide for family fish fries and filled freezers.
It's about time.
It needs to be supported.
Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources released the full list of lakes under consideration for greatly reduced bluegill limits earlier this month. It was perhaps obscured in the wave of coronavirus pandemic news and the excitement, mixed with some consternation given the situation, surrounding the state's famed walleye opener.
There are those, present company proudly included, who believe an initiative to grow bigger panfish is every bit as important as slot limits and stocking programs surrounding more glamorous species like walleye and muskellunge. The first catch for most Minnesota anglers was a sunfish off the dock or a crappie through the ice. Some never outgrew that excitement.
So let's talk about what the DNR is calling the Quality Bluegill Initiative and why we should support it. The agency is asking for public comment on the proposal through this summer. Based on input collected, the DNR will make any necessary changes and new regulations could go into effect March 1, 2021.
Bluegills have for generations provided the backbone of Minnesota's fishing experience, despite the glitz and glamour you see from the fancy boats and whiz-bang electronics of walleye, bass and muskie anglers. Sticking a worm on a hook beneath a bobber remains the most popular and productive form of fishing for tens of thousands of people.
The quality of those outings, though, has changed drastically over the years. Catching a full pail of fish is not a problem. Sunnies remain numerous and willing to bite. The average size of the fish, though, has continued to shrink as anglers kept plucking bluegills from the water as soon as they reached "keeper" size, usually seven or eight inches long.
It finally reached a point, the DNR says, where anglers, resort owners and others said something needed to be done to improve the size structure of bluegills in certain lakes.
Thus was born the Quality Bluegill Initiative, selecting more than 100 lakes around Minnesota to be added to the 57 that already had special regulations for sunfish. The idea was to reduce the daily limit for bluegills in those lakes from the statewide figure of 20 to either 10 (to maintain quality fishing) or five (to increase quality fishing).
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Reduced limits are a proven way to increase the average size of panfish in certain lakes. The modifier "certain" is important. The DNR only selected lakes that have the biological capability to grow big bluegills. Not all lakes can.
Local lakes on the list began seeping out in February from area fisheries offices. I wrote about the 13 lakes in Otter Tail County and the five in Becker County that would be included in the proposal . The full list released May 5 included those lakes, indicating they would have five-fish limits for sunfish.
The Otter Tail County lakes are:
- Bass (near Underwood)
- East Lost
- Fish (near Weetown)
- Fish (near Parkers Prairie)
- Long (near Vergas)
- Red River Lake
- West Lost
- West Silent
The Becker County lakes are:
- Height of Land
- Little Sugar Bush
- Big Floyd
The DNR says it believes property owners and other stakeholders on the listed lakes mostly support the changes, but it still wants to hear from the general public. Its website includes a link to an online survey to gauge public support for the proposal, both in general and lake-specific terms. The survey includes a virtual suggestion box where users can submit their ideas or concerns about the QBI.
You can access the survey here: DNR Quality Bluegill Initiative input survey .
A regulation only works if people support it. The DNR is pushing that the more restrictive limits will result in bigger bluegills and that, in the end, will benefit anglers instead of hamper them.
That's the key. If the initiative works as planned, more anglers will have the opportunity to catch quality bluegills —perhaps even trophy fish weighing more than a pound — in more lakes. Not every lake. But perhaps 200 or so in a state that tags itself as the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
That shouldn't be a difficult ask.
Bluegills have long been brushed aside by most anglers as strictly an "action" fish or a "meat" fish. If you have to keep the kids occupied or catch enough fish for supper, bluegills were the ticket. Not much thought was given to the size of the fish being caught, or the average size was good enough that anglers were satisfied.
The support thus far for the QBI is an acknowledgement that more fishermen value big bluegills and the opportunity to catch them. Quality over quantity is finally taking hold.
Bluegills a pound or larger are every bit the equal to an eight-pound walleye in trophy terms. They might be more rare, given anglers' penchant to release big walleyes and keep big panfish.
Minnesota anglers can change that by supporting the DNR's proposal to reduce bluegill limits on a handful of lakes.