BEMIDJI, Minn. — When Henry Drewes became Northwest Region fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1998, his first day on the job was a trial by fire, of sorts.
The subject was walleye stocking, and the trial by fire was a Senate hearing in Alexandria, Minnesota, organized by several state senators who weren’t happy with the DNR’s approach to stocking.
Always controversial, walleye stocking was an especially toasty hot-button topic in those days.
“It was just a nasty meeting,” Drewes recalled. “So, that was my first day on the job.”
After the meeting, then-DNR fisheries chief Ron Payer asked Drewes if he was going to stick with the job.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll stick with it,’” Drewes said.
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Drewes, 62, stuck with the job for the next 23 years, but now he’s retiring. As regional fisheries manager, Drewes has overseen operations in seven area fisheries offices from Glenwood to Baudette, Minnesota.
His last official day on the job is Monday, Aug. 2. Ted Sledge, assistant regional fisheries manager, will be the interim manager.
“Where did the time go?” Drewes quipped on a recent late July morning while taking pictures down from his office wall at DNR regional headquarters in Bemidji. “How did it go so fast?”
From east to west
Originally from the East Coast, Drewes says he knew little about the Midwest when he decided to switch majors after 2½ years as a pre-med student at Virginia Tech and enroll in the university’s fish and wildlife program.
“It was such a friendly environment compared to the competitiveness of pre-med,” Drewes said "People say I was born with a fishing rod in my hand, and I gravitated in that direction.”
After graduating from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife management, Drewes attended graduate school and earned his master’s degree at South Dakota State University.
That’s where he got his first taste of the Midwest.
“That was an amazing experience, going to South Dakota State,” Drewes said. “I also fell in love at that time with the Midwest and knew I was going to stay in the Midwest and not move back to the East Coast.”
After stints in Oklahoma and Montana, Drewes joined the Minnesota DNR in 1986 as an aquatic biologist in the Twin Cities, working on warm water streams and studying fish habitat needs. He and his wife, Annette, who also works in natural resources, moved north to Bemidji in 1988 when he accepted a job as assistant regional fisheries supervisor.
“Some of my first jobs were to evaluate and review all of our stocking proposals in the region, but I also got free license to work on the Red River,” Drewes said, describing himself as a “river rat at heart.”
His work on the Red River included organizing the first comprehensive Red River fisheries survey in partnership with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, a project that included tagging channel catfish all the way from the headwaters of the river to below the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport, Manitoba.
Drewes also introduced trotlines as a sampling technique for catching channel catfish.
“I had done it as a kid growing up in Virginia and North Carolina,” Drewes said. “We did a lot of jug line and trotline fishing for channel cats and blue cats recreationally, so when we were confronted with, ‘How do we get our hands on these large catfish from the northernmost sections of the Red River?’ I said we should use trotlines.
“For the northern part of the river, that’s standard assessment gear, so that was really fun introducing the state to some skills that I had learned as a kid growing up.”
That early work, Drewes says, was the foundation for the dam modification projects on the Red River through construction of rock-riffle rapids to improve safety and accommodate fish passage while still allowing the structures to function as dams.
Seven of the eight dams on the mainstem Red have been modified in the past two decades, Drewes says; only the Drayton Dam remains.
Numerous similar projects also have been completed along tributaries of the Red, in turn providing the fish passage necessary to re-establish lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin.
“Now anglers are catching sturgeon, and we’re starting to see reproduction, we’re starting to see spawning females,” Drewes said. “That started in 1997, the restoration program, so the fruits of that are now being borne. Many years later, it’s a lot of pride in some of the work that we’ve done in the basin.”
Back to Bemidji
Drewes served as assistant regional fisheries manager for 4½ years until moving back to the Twin Cities in 1992 and a position as DNR fisheries program consultant. Still, returning to Bemidji was always in the back of his mind, Drewes says, and that opportunity presented itself in 1998, when longtime regional fisheries manager Bob Strand announced his retirement.
Drewes, who had worked as Strand’s assistant, applied for the position and got the job.
“We were living in Stillwater when I was working in St. Paul, and looking back, if we’d been there another year or two, I probably wouldn’t have left,” said Drewes, who has two grown daughters. “The kids were getting ready to enter school or just starting school, and, you know, your taproot starts going down.”
Looking back on his 23 years as Northwest Region fisheries manager, Drewes says being involved with the Red Lake walleye recovery, sturgeon restoration both in the Red River Basin and in Lake of the Woods and pioneering experiments with special regulations for northern pike and bluegills stand out as highlights.
“A lot of people touched the Red Lake project, and our partnership with the Red Lake Band has been as solid as a rock and couldn’t be better,” Drewes said. “There were a lot of naysayers in the early years — a lot of naysayers. Then look at where we are 16 years after we reopened that fishery, and it’s still going strong.”
Tackling the issue of declining walleye populations on Leech Lake in the mid-2000s was a low point, Drewes recalls.
“There were some very dark times on Leech Lake with a depressed walleye population and just a burgeoning cormorant population,” Drewes said. “That fishery was in trouble, and those were tough times, really tough times, for area staff and myself, and it got personal in the community between outspoken citizens and the staff — it was tough.
“It took awhile to implement some measures to rehabilitate that fishery and then move out of that. Today, there are good relationships there and a solid walleye population, but that was a tough one.”
Efforts to expand muskie fishing opportunities by stocking new lakes also got “pretty nasty,” Drewes says, particularly in Otter Tail County.
“Muskie management issues have been tough,” he said. “We were able to add some lakes, but we weren’t able to keep up with the demand for muskie fishing. It always seems resource issues get sticky, they get personal.
“That’s never fun to see.”
As with fisheries managers everywhere, Drewes’ replacement will face long-term challenges with a warming climate and aquatic invasive species, he says. Rising water temperatures are causing lakes once dominated by walleyes and perch to shift toward bass and panfish.
Zebra mussels are resulting in clearer water, forcing anglers to adapt.
“These shifts in fish communities are real; they're happening,” Drewes said.
In the short term, Drewes’ retirement plans include a fishing trip to Alaska, sharptail hunting in North Dakota, duck hunting in South Dakota, pheasant hunting in both North Dakota and South Dakota and then deer hunting in northern Minnesota.
It’s been a great ride, Drewes says, but he’s looking forward to retirement.
“I have had the privilege of working in the great state of Minnesota for the anglers that pay our salaries for 35 years, the last 23 in just an absolute dream job, supervising our field offices in northwest Minnesota and getting to work on lots of great stuff,” Drewes said. “I’m departing very happy, very content. I will dearly miss my colleagues, and I'll miss the work, but it's just time for that next chapter.
“I'm in a good place.”