By Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Park Rapids holds a unique place in Minnesota’s angling history.

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The home of the 2013 Governor’s Fishing Opener is where a long-time fishing contest helped spark a fishing regulation renaissance.

“Today, Minnesota anglers catch 50-pound muskellunge, 70-pound sturgeon and chunky walleyes year in, year out,” said Dirk Peterson, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries chief. “That happens, in part, because of length and bag limit regulations that evolved from an analysis of 113,845 fishing contest entries at the former Fuller Hardware Store and Tackle Shop in downtown Park Rapids.”

The analysis was completed in 1989 by Donald Olson and Paul Cunningham, a pair of DNR fisheries research biologists. Together, they analyzed fishing contest records from 1930 through 1987 that appeared in the popular Fuller’s Fishermen’s Golden Book and Fishing Directory. This annual publication recorded the weights of all fish entered in the contest, regardless of size, and also the waters from which they were caught.

“Fifty-eight years of contest entries provided a very clear picture of the problem,” Peterson said. “Simply put, as fishing pressure increased from the 1930s and beyond, the average size of fish decreased. So too did the number of trophy fish entered in the contest.”

For example, Peterson said the number of muskellunge entries dropped off after the 1930s. The number of large northern pike entries fell after 1948. Numbers of large walleyes and largemouth bass peaked in 1972 and 1977, respectively, and then declined. Large black crappies nearly disappeared in the 1980s. The weight of the average bluegill shrank by 25 percent from 1970 to 1987.

What was happening in the Park Rapids area was happening elsewhere across the state.

“The Golden Books were actually a golden tool for communicating that despite length and bag limit regulations since 1891 – roughly 100 years – Minnesota’s fishing regulations were not maintaining fishing quality,” Peterson said. “Something had to change . . . and it did.”

Today, about 250 lakes and more than 80 streams are subject to special or experimental fishing regulations as part of a strategic approach to maintain or improve Minnesota’s fishing quality. These regulations apply to a small percentage of the state’s 5,400 fishing lakes but a considerable proportion of the state’s total fishing waters in terms of acreage.

“You’re never far away from water where statewide regulations apply and it’s easier to keep a meal of fish,” Peterson said. “But you’re also never too far away from water where special or experimental regulations are in place to produce and maintain bigger fish that other customers want.”

Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries manager at Grand Rapids, said citizen interest in special fishing regulations was growing in the late 1980s and galvanized in 1991 at the first-ever DNR-sponsored Minnesota Fishing Roundtable. That’s where a small group of ardent anglers advocated for individual lake management, meaning having the DNR apply habitat improvement, fishing regulations and, if necessary, stocking regimens designed to a body of water’s unique potential.

This stakeholder support, combined with agency interest to do the same, resulted in an increase in the number of so-called “slot limits.” Slot limits are length-based regulations that require anglers to immediately release larger-sized fish or limit them to harvesting only certain-sized fish.

“Slot limits were a controversial concept 20 years ago,” Goeman said. “Many anglers, especially harvest-oriented anglers, didn’t care for them or the goal they aimed to achieve. They grew up with a catch-and-keep philosophy for keeper-sized fish and this was contrary to that. Moreover, many were uncertain if self-sacrifice would result in a greater good.”

Adding to the unease were bag limit reductions that began in the early 2000s. That’s when the statewide perch limit dropped from 100 to 20 and bag and possession limits were also reduced for crappie, sunfish and lake trout. Statewide walleye and northern pike regulations also changed by limiting anglers to one walleye more than 20 inches and one northern pike more than 30 inches in possession. More restrictive smallmouth bass and catfish regulations also were implemented about this time.

The one-two punch of special fishing regulations and reduced bag limits ultimately hit home with the angling public. Resistance declined as the state’s reputation for fishing quality increased, said Al Stevens, the DNR’s special fishing regulations coordinator. “Special fishing regulations continue to be controversial in some instances but not like in the past,” he said. “It took time but we proved that with a combination of voluntary catch-and-release, special fishing regulations and reduced bag limits our lakes could provide meals of fish, trophy fish and a lot of good times.”

Jeff Burks, owner of Woman Lake Lodge on Woman Lake near Longville, said his business has benefited from special regulations. “Our customers have been very satisfied with the pike regulation because they have noticed the larger sizes of pike they have been catching,” Burks said. At Woman Lake all northern pike from 24- to 36-inches in length must be immediately released; one more than 36 inches is allowed in possession.

Doug Schultz, Walker area fisheries supervisor, noted that “where special regulations have been used, the quality of most largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, bluegill, and black crappie populations in the area has improved.” Not only are fish managers seeing success at the population level, he said, but they are also seeing these populations attract anglers from other areas, including out of state. “This has been great for the tourism-based businesses in northern Minnesota.”

Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Bemidji, expressed a similar sentiment. “Anglers and business owners in the Bemidji area are noticing the benefits of these special regulations for a variety of species,” he said. “All four of the main fishing lakes in Itasca State Park all have some type of special regulation ranging from reduced bag limits on sunfish to catch- and- release only for bass or muskie. We could not find a better location for regulations to restore quality fishing than lakes within the most popular state park in Minnesota.”

Doug Kingsley, the DNR’s area fisheries supervisor at Park Rapids, said he’s seen special regulations benefit local anglers and the tourists who visit the Hubbard County area. “The northern pike regulations that were implemented in 2003 are working,” Kingsley said.

“We have 24- to 36-inch protected slot length limits for northern pike at Blueberry, George and Big Mantrap and a 40-inch minimum length limits at Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Crow Wing lakes. At all those lakes we are seeing decreases in the proportion of smaller-sized northern pike and increases in the proportion of medium-sized pike.”