Keeping the fish happy in 10,000 lakes

“What percentage of walleyes caught in Minnesota are born wild?” asks DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira, as he looks around a room filled with lake association members from Chisago and Washington Counties. A few folks call out numbers – 10%? Maybe 20%? “People talk a lot about fish stocking,” Pereira continues, “but 85% of the walleye caught in Minnesota come from naturally reproducing wild populations. That’s what put Minnesota on the map as a tourist destination, and that’s what will continue to keep people coming here to fish for years to come.”

Hong family fishing on the upper Mississippi River.

Pereira started his career as a field biologist more than 30 years ago and can tell you a lot about what it takes to keep fish happy. When he was appointed as Minnesota’s Fisheries Chief in 2013, however, he quickly realized that fisheries management has a lot more to do with people than fish. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sells 1.3 million angling licenses each year and manages fisheries in nearly 5000 lakes. Fishing generates $4.2 billion per year for the state’s economy and is an important part of our Minnesota culture and heritage.

“We know the characteristics of a healthy fishing lake,” Pereira explains, “and it is far more efficient and cost-effective to protect high quality resources that to try to restore degraded lakes and streams.” As an agency, however, the DNR must try to balance the competing interests of the public, lakeshore property owners, fishing and sportsman groups, local government, and other stakeholders.

The south bay of Big Marine Lake – healthy fisheries require clean water, rooted aquatic plants, and natural areas for shelter and spawning.

One way the fisheries department gathers input from the public is through an annual stakeholder roundtable, which they’ve facilitated for 28 years. Another strategy is to contract with social science experts at the University of Minnesota to conduct statewide angling surveys every five years. In addition, before enacting any new regulations, the department conducts extensive public notice, public meetings, and sometimes even hearings.

Often, the DNR will change course in response to feedback from local stakeholders. For example, the agency recently decided not to stock muskies in Big Marine Lake after the Big Marine Lake Association voiced concerns. They also enacted a moratorium on trout-stocking in Square Lake at the request of Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District and the Square Lake Association after research showed that trout were negatively impacting water clarity.

2016 early morning
Square Lake in northern Washington County is known for clear water that attracts swimmers and scuba divers.

Other times, Pereira says, the DNR is able to work with diverse stakeholders to create a plan that everyone can support. This was the case for new 2018 pike fishing regulations. Fish surveys had shown that pike populations were growing in north-central Minnesota lakes since 1970, which has contributed to an imbalance in the natural food web for those lakes. The new regulations will allow anglers to catch more pike in north-central lakes (10 fish bag limit) than in the northeast and southern Minnesota where there aren’t as many pike. There are also changes to the minimum length limits and to spearing regulations for pike. The DNR worked hard to involve communities all over the state in the rule-making process and received absolutely no objections to the proposal from the 2016 legislature – a first according to Pereira.

The DNR has also seen big success from its partnerships with Trout Unlimited and others to improve stream habitat in southeastern Minnesota. “The golden years for trout fishing are now,” proclaims Pereira. “There have never been more brown trout in those streams than there are today, thanks to habitat restoration efforts.”

Anglers fly-fish from the banks of Beaver Creek in southeast Minnesota, which supports a healthy population of naturally reproducing brown trout without stocking due to cold and clean water.

When asked what local communities and lake associations can do to support healthy fisheries, Pereira offers familiar advice. “Fish need good water quality, physical complexity, riparian habitat, and connectivity. Unfortunately, numerous small changes around a lake can create a large cumulative impact for water quality and aquatic life.” Lakeshore landowners can work with watershed districts and conservation districts to restore shoreline habitat on their properties and install other small-scale landscaping practices such as raingardens. In addition, the public can support other water quality improvement projects within the larger watershed, including wetland restoration, buffers, iron-sand filters, and community stormwater retrofits.


To learn more about fisheries management in Minnesota, go to:

To request a site visit and learn about grants for a shoreline or raingarden project in Washington County, go to: