Minnesota Fishing Still Just as Sweet

Erica Ellefson holds up one of the many bass we caught on Disappointment Lake.
Erica Ellefson holds up one of the many bass we caught on Disappointment Lake.

With three poles, one canoe, and an oversized tackle box, we three girls set out to prove that Disappointment Lake was misnamed. Had we relied on my skill alone, we would have certainly ate stale tortillas and cheese for lunch. Erica and Katie, on the other hand, paddled with confidence directly to the sheltered bay marked on the map with an asterisk and a hand-written note, “Good bass fishing here.” Within minutes, Erica had already caught her first fish. It was a tiny one, the kind you keep at the beginning of a trip, just in case it’s the only one you catch that day. Before long, however, the bigger bass began biting.

Katie Pata and Erica show off the day's catch before lunch.
Katie Pata and Erica show off the day’s catch before lunch.

I was sitting in the middle seat, and I screamed when Katie caught her first fish, reeling it in so that the slimy bugger flew by inches from my face before flopping about on the bottom of the canoe underneath my seat. Later, with a little guidance from my gal pals, I soon reeled in a fighting bass of my own. After an hour or so on the water, we paddled back to camp triumphantly, seven fish trailing behind us on a line. We ate them battered and fried over a camp stove, the stale tortillas long since forgotten.

Since the premature close of walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs in early August, there has been intense discussion about the state of fishing in Minnesota. Will anyone come here to fish anymore? Are there still enough fish to be caught?

Though walleye is our official State Fish, it may surprise you to learn that there are actually 158 species of fish in Minnesota. Pan fish are the most commonly caught fish in Minnesota (9.7 million pounds per year), followed by walleye (4.6 million pounds) and northern pike (4.6 million pounds). You can catch crappie, catfish, sunfish, perch and bullhead at any time, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has established fishing seasons for gamefish such as walleye, northern pike and bass to protect these species from overfishing.

Fishing is a lucrative business in Minnesota. The DNR estimates that anglers in our state spend $1.8 billion per year on fishing-related recreation, including boats, cabin rentals, fishing gear, gas, and even ice. Many of these anglers have their sights set on walleye; to help boost natural populations, the DNR stocks lakes with approximately 250 million walleye fry (mosquito sized), 2.5 million walleye fingerlings (4-6 inches long), 50,000 walleye yearlings, and 30,000 adult walleye each year. That said, the DNR stocks other popular fish species as well, and many people enjoy the solitude of fly fishing for trout on a cold-water stream, fighting to reel in a plucky bass, or even going for the big guns like muskie and northern pike.

You may also be surprised to learn that lakes in southwestern Minnesota produce five times as many fish per acre as the cool, deep, clear, clean lakes in northern Minnesota.  The reason is that fertile lakes support more plant life, which in turn creates more habitat and more food for the fish. However, too much of a good thing can eventually become a problem. When lakes are inundated with nutrients from urban and agricultural runoff, already eutrophic lakes can become hyper-eutrophic, meaning that the excess nutrients allow so much algae and plant growth that the plants eventually die, consuming large quantities of oxygen as they decompose. Fish kills are common in many shallow lakes during the winter and can happen during mid-summer algae blooms as well. In addition, nutrient laden runoff often comes with other pollutants as well. Sediment can muddy the water, clogging fish gills and smothering spawning areas, and the runoff usually contains warmer water, a problem for cold-water fish like trout.

In the east metro area, local units of government known as Watershed Districts manage the landscape surrounding lakes, establishing rules regarding development and working with landowners to reduce runoff going into the water. Meanwhile, the DNR is responsible for managing what happens inside the lakes to fish and aquatic plants, for example, limiting the amount of aquatic plants lakeshore landowners can clear for navigation so that fish populations don’t crash. This division of labor can be confusing, but helps to make a large job more manageable.

To learn more about fishing and fisheries management in Minnesota, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishmn. The summer may be over, but fishing in Minnesota is definitely not.