The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) held a public meeting Sept. 5 in Park Rapids, seeking public comment on a proposal to decrease possession limits for sunfish and crappies on Fifth and Sixth Crow Wing lakes.

The proposed experimental regulation would reduce possession to five bluegill and five crappies. The goal is to increase the sizes of those species on the two lakes, explained Park Rapids Area Fisheries Supervisor Doug Kingsley.

"Best chance of success would probably be reduced possession limits of five each for bluegills and crappies," he said.

Reviewing lake survey data and fish house counts, Kingsley said, "We saw some declines in bluegill abundance in both Crow Wing lakes. Those declines might have been related to fish house counts, but that really wasn't statistically significant."

Reduced bluegill numbers occurred between 1976-2009 on Fifth Crow Lake and 1989-2009 on Sixth. During roughly same time period, Kingsley said, the number of fish houses trended upward, indicating a negative relationship. While the bluegill decline coincides with an increase in fish houses, Kingsley said, the data points are scattered above and below an average "and there's not enough counts."

Annual fish house counts began in 1988. DNR lake surveys are conducted every years. The next lake survey of Fifth and Sixth is scheduled for 2019, Kingsley said.

Sixth Crow Wing experienced a fish kill in 2007, likely due to a bacterial infection, Kingsley noted. That bacteria is present in the water all the time, he explained, but if fish are stressed by higher water temperatures and after spawning, they are more likely to pick up the infection.

"We, historically, have had low proportions of bluegill larger than eight inches on both of the lakes, and it doesn't look like the size of bluegill are necessarily related to numbers of fish houses," Kingsley said.

The DNR strives to have enough large bluegill for anglers and small fry to maintain the population, he said.

"For crappies, we saw fluctuations in abundance. We didn't see any trends on Fifth Crow Wing. The decline on Sixth Crow Wing Lake could've been related to an increase in fish houses. It wasn't really statistically significant again," he said.

Crappie abundance is on the low end for both lakes "compared to other similar lakes," Kingsley noted.

"Historically, we've had pretty good proportions of crappies larger than 10 inches, but we've had low proportions of crappies larger than 12 inches. And again, no real significant relationship between sizes and numbers of fish houses."

Audience members asked why the regulation was being considered now.

"We were asked to pursue a regulation change, and it looked like there might be some merit do it" based on the best information the DNR has about fishing pressure, Kingsley replied.

Cary Brzinski, owner of Royal Starr Resort on Sixth Crow Wing Lake, said, "We're already on notice from 17 cabins' worth of customers that, if this goes through, they're going to leave. That's $29,000 worth of business for us. That's us alone. Now you throw in the other businesses on the lake and multiply that by what they do to the local economy. Why is this being considered?"

Kingsley countered, saying that other lakes with more restrictive regulations have actually seen increases in anglers.

Brzinski said he researched the 17 Minnesota lakes that currently have limits of five bluegill and five crappies. "Not at one of them has a resort in operation right now that I could find. The closest I could find was Mantrap."

Kingsley noted there has been discussion about changing the statewide regulation for sunfish. "That could happen some time in the near future. We still haven't reached any decisions on that," he said, adding the idea was put forth by a citizens work group.

The DNR is also collecting the results of a recent University of Minnesota angler survey about regulation changes.

Those wishing to provide comments about the Crow Wing proposal by phone may call 732-4153. Forms are also available at the Park Rapids fisheries office at 301 S. Grove Ave. Comments will be accepted through Sept. 21.

Kingsley said he will compile comments, along with his recommendation whether to proceed with the regulation or not, and forward them to his regional supervisor in Bemidji. "And then they'll go to St. Paul for a final decision," he said.