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Sens. John Carlson of Bemidji, left, and Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids on Monday listen to a fisherman discuss whether the fishing opener should be moved up a week, to May 5. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

Senate unsupportive of moving up fishing opener

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ST. PAUL -- Walleye and northern pike may be safe until Mother's Day weekend after all, if discussion in a Senate committee Monday is any indication.

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Members of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Monday expressed no support for moving the fishing opener to May 5, a week earlier than the traditional Mother's Day opener.

A record-warm March prompted a drive to move up this year's fishing opener. Then, walleye were spawning earlier than normal; now, however, fish experts say spawning has slowed and is closer to normal, raising a concern among biologists that an early opener could hurt the fish.

Representatives of resort organizations said their members are divided on the subject, but whatever lawmakers do, they want a decision as soon as possible.

"They are not mixed in my district," said Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. "They don't want it. I have not had one -- not one phone call, not one email -- from anyone who wants it."

With just 20 days left before an early opener, getting things done in time would be difficult. Resorters "are struggling right now to meet the May 12 opener," said Tony Kwilas, representing larger Minnesota resorts and other hospitality businesses.

Anglers told the committee that they, too, were concerned for fish and urged lawmakers to keep the opening as is.

"Ninety percent of the guides in my area ... are against the early opener," fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids said. "We need to protect these fish, we need to protect the walleyes in Minnesota from being overharvested."

The House overwhelmingly voted to amend a bill April 3 to push the opener up to May 5, so anglers can get out a week before Mother's Day weekend.

A leading House member on outdoors issues said the final decision cannot come until next week, which is too late, in resort owners' opinions.

"It was not as well researched when we voted on it," Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.

Before the House vote, there were no committee hearings and little discussion about the issue.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, presented the idea, given the warm weather at the time.

Opinions about the issue are changing quickly, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said Monday after his environment and natural resources committee heard testimony that produced no support for the earlier openers.

"The more people are weighing in on it, the more of a concern it became," Ingebrigtsen said.

During a 10-day Easter-Passover break, including a trip through the Red River Valley, he heard lots of opposition. "I will be strongly against it on the Senate floor tomorrow, if it comes up."

Senators plan to debate Ingebrigtsen's game and fish bill Tuesday, and there could be an attempt to amend the bill to move the opener. Ingebrigtsen said he would talk to Bakk before the vote, but a Bakk spokesman said his boss would make no comment Monday.

"If you are talking about a resort or the guides or whoever it is, it is too late," Sen. Tim Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said.

Had legislators approved the plan three weeks ago, he added, "it would have been fine. As far as I'm concerned, it is a moot point."

On a related issue, Ingebrigtsen said he expects the House to go along with the Senate-approved provision to raise hunting and fishing fees.

The Senate bill contains the increase, but a House-passed measure does not. The Senate chairman said he expects the fee increase to prevail in negotiations.

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