Orlan Blanchard has fished the Kabekona River since 1938 for brook trout.

These days he's mad as the dickens at the DNR, which will recommend a catch and release regulation for a portion of the river that feeds into Kabekona Lake. The reason, says the DNR, is to stabilize the brookie population and prevent the vast fluctuations in population the agency has seen over the years.

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Nonsense, counters Blanchard and his neighbors.

The riverbanks will be littered with trout carcasses because brookies aren't amenable to catch and release methods. Such regulations will result in more of the fish population dying off than being saved.

"Eighty five percent will die," maintains Penny Olson, who has fished the river most of her life, too.

The request for regulation

The DNR has monitored the river for many years, DNR Fisheries supervisor Doug Kingsley said.

"We had a proposal that we initiated this spring, and we held a public meeting in Laporte then to advise people what we were proposing and what kind of information we had," he said of the proposed regulations.

"Then we posted signs on the river to let people know we were proposing a possible

regulation change."

A second meeting was held last month in Laporte, attended by Blanchard, his brother, Olson and her husband and other neighbors who came away dissatisfied.

"They didn't even listen to us," Penny Olson said. "They had pretty much made up their minds. It's not that I wanted them to agree with me, just that I wanted them to listen."

Kingsley said he heard the arguments for and against loud and clear.

"At the meeting there were some comments for regulation and some comments against," Kingsley said. "It was fairly evenly split."

Opponents didn't see it that way.

"Why screw with something that ain't broke?" asked Mike Olson.

Among the proposals included were an outright ban in the sensitive areas, slot limits or the catch and release.

Trout Unlimited's involvement

"TU is a conservation organization so we try to work in a number of cold water streams and watersheds," said Steve Young of Bemidji, Headwaters chapter president of Trout Unlimited.

"There aren't a lot of those in northwestern Minnesota and Kabekona is certainly one of the better ones.

"It's one of the few that have naturally reproducing trout populations. There's no stocking in Kabekona," he said.

"We've had members that have fished that river for over 50 years so our membership has a long history of involvement with that river," Young said. We've got members that live in that area, several from Laporte, members that live in Benedict, Akeley, Walker and Guthrie."

Olsons question those ties to the area.

"They don't live in Hubbard County, they don't pay taxes here," Penny Olson said, characterizing the club as a group of outside "elitists" who have influenced the DNR decision on the river.

"Do they want a fish to fry or a wall hanger?" she said of the eventual objective to get bigger brookies in the river.

"My response to that is we're not elitists," Young countered. "A number of our members live in that area. This isn't just a TU backed proposal. There were a number of people at that meeting that lived on that river who were very much in favor of special regs. One guy spoke up and said he wished the whole river was catch and release."

The river was last stocked in 1990, said resident Tom Ferguson, who owns 40 acres near the river where the proposed regulations would affect.

"Mother Nature has been taking care of it," he said of the fluctuating population.

Because of an aggressive beaver trapping program begun by the DNR, with assistance from TU, natural predators have been removed and the population is flourishing, Young says.

"Our goal is to improve the fishery and the two things that are trying to be addressed through this proposal for special regs are to improve the number of bigger fish, 12 inches or over, but to improve the overall population and to take out the population fluctuations," Young said.

Pros and cons of catch and release

Whether a catch and release fishing method is harmful to the trout population is angrily debated among the groups, and at the heart of the regulation.

"What we are proposing is a catch and release only regulation on a portion of the river and we offered two alternatives," Kingsley said. "Both of the alternatives are the lower section of the river.

"One section would be 257th Avenue downstream to the lake and the other alternative is a little bit shorter, smaller section from County Road 36 down to the lake."

TU says its members use barbless hooks and artificial bait to keep the death rate down.

Bruce Blanchard, who's been fishing the river nearly as long as his older brother, remembers the days when you went down there with your tennis shoes, shorts and a wood pole with a string, a homemade hook and a worm.

Brookies bite quickly and you yank them up out of the water, he said. They don't survive.

He owns 120 acres near the proposed regulation site.

He believes the bigger fish are heading into Kabekona Lake.

"I've seen a lot of them and caught some in the lake ice fishing," he maintains.

"People that properly handle fish, we see fairly low mortality on that," Kingsley said.

"I suspect people that would be fishing that portion of the river that has catch and release likely won't have live bait, things that would increase mortality."

Young agrees. He said catch and release has been an effective tool to manage trout populations for years.

"The point being is you catch them, depending on the technique and how you handle them, the survival rate can be very good," he says.

A decision soon ?

Opponents wonder why the lake regulations need to be in place when the river, by everyone's characterization, is self-generating.

"This river is not for an experimental run," said Orlan Blanchard of the DNR proposal to try the regulations for five years.

"It's unconstitutional that they can come in here and take this river like this," he said.

"The river is not fished that heavy to do anything with it," Bruce Blanchard maintains. "Catch and release is the stupidest thing I've heard."

The Olsons say it's a colossal waste of money that the DNR could put to better use, such as re-stocking if they want bigger fish, or cleaning up the garbage people throw along the riverbanks.

"I don't want to be bulldogged," Penny Olson said. "I want to know my great-grandchildren can come here and drop a line in the water."

"It's not a bunch of outsiders coming in and trying to force something on the locals," Young insists of his club.

"We don't operate that way," he added. "The DNR considers everybody's concerns as part of the natural process and see if there's some reasonable thing we can do to address the problems."

Kingsley said a recommendation to implement the catch and release regulations will go to the regional office in Bemidji for approval, then to St. Paul for the commissioner's review.

The public comment period ended last Friday.

"The public comments were pretty evenly split and slightly favoring to go ahead with the regulation," Kingsley said. "There's a pretty good chance we'll pursue it."

Opponents are writing to their legislators and congressional representatives to enlist help from more powerful forces to stop the DNR from implementing any proposed regulations.

Meanwhile landowners are being offered money to provide the DNR river easements in the area affected.

"Once the DNR gets its foot in the door they'll never let go," Penny Olson said.

"They had viable input and they were just pushed to the side," she said of her neighbors, shaking her head.