Friday, May 27, 2016

The anti-muskie agenda goes deeper than muskies

Note: The following appeared first on my blog over at Outdoor News. It's an important issue that I'll continue to highlight.

When Minnesota lawmakers failed to pass a Game and Fish Bill before the close of this year’s legislative session, the plans of anti-muskie Minnesotans and their political pawns were temporarily derailed.

Muskies have become a convenient tool for those folks who don't want 'outsiders' on 'their' lakes.
 Some in the Senate wanted a four-year moratorium on muskie stocking. Some House members wanted to preclude the DNR from stocking any of the six lakes it had identified as possibilities for this year. The fact that efforts to pass a Game and Fish Bill continued even as a drama Shakespeare couldn’t have dreamed up unfolded in the session’s final minutes tells you all you need to know.

Some people hate muskies. But that hatred alone didn’t make muskies the centerpiece of what pretty much was a failed session when it comes to fish and wildlife. No, muskies were simply a useful tool for what amounts to an anti-public-waters agenda. That such interests nearly won the day – and, no doubt, will be back next year – is scary indeed.

Muskies are the alpha predator wherever they live, and that mystique is among the reasons people fish for them. But science tells us they don’t run roughshod over the bodies of water in which they live, decimating sunfish and walleye populations. But if you allow your imagination to go to fairytale land, perhaps you can see muskies attacking swimmers or killing walleyes just for the hell of it.

It’s not the truth, but something about muskies makes you stop and think: What if? Individual lakeshore owners and some lakeshore associations in Minnesota have preyed upon people’s imaginations in a cynical attempt to keep muskies out of “their” lakes. After all, it wouldn’t work too well to just come out and say what they’re thinking – “If you don’t own property on ‘our’ lake, you’re really not welcome” – would it? That’s not a Minnesota value. It’s so much easier to keep pushing the same tired and wholly unproven refrain about how muskies lay waste to anything in their paths.

It’s sad, but probably not surprising, how easy it’s been for the anti-public-waters folks to find lawmakers who are all too willing to help advance their wholly un-Minnesotan agenda.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Will audit lead to Minnesota deer-management changes?

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
There are about a half-million deer hunters in Minnesota. When it comes to a specific user groups for which the state Department of Natural Resources manages, the only one I can think of that’s bigger – in the fish and wildlife realm, anyway – is fishermen.

And for the past few years, deer hunters as a whole haven’t been an especially happy group. The harvest has been way down – the past two years, it’s been as low as it was following extraordinarily harsh winters in the mid- to late 1990s – and many hunters are complaining about seeing a lack of deer from their stands.

Now, we’ve had a couple of severe winters in the recent past, and that no doubt has put the hurt on deer. But hunters also are concerned that the DNR has lowered deer numbers to what they have as unacceptable levels.

I don’t think there’s a single reason for the current situation in which we find ourselves. In all likelihood, deer numbers through the 2000s were reduced too far in some areas, and ill-timed severe winters exacerbated the problem, or at least put the lid on herd-growth potential at an inopportune time.

All of this is a long way of illustrating the importance of next Thursday, May 26. That’s when the Minnesota Legislative Auditor will release a report on Minnesota’s deer-management program. The audit has been under way since the middle of last year, and some of the folks who pushed for it were irritated about the timing of the release. Typically, these audits are released during the legislative session, so lawmakers can digest them and potentially act on them. This year’s session ends May 23.

Here’s what the audit will cover:

• How much does the DNR spend on deer population management? How are these activities funded?
• How does the DNR estimate and monitor Minnesota’s deer population? How do these methods compare with recommended practices?
• How does the DNR establish the state’s deer population goals and hunting permit strategies? To what extent do the DNR’s deer population goals reflect various stakeholders’ interests?

I haven’t seen the audit and have no idea what the auditors found. My guess is that there will be some suggestions for improvement that the DNR can do on its own. Perhaps others will need legislative involvement in 2017.

At the end of the day, I’m hopeful the report will be something of a starting point whereby the DNR and deer stakeholders can move forward toward common goals. It does nobody any good for a user group as large as deer hunters to be distrustful – rightly or wrongly – of DNR deer managers.

These audits have the potential to be catalysts for positive change. One of the last big ones having to do with the DNR concerned a conservation officer conference. The audit found that state money had been spent improperly on the conference. The fallout from the audit led to the retirement of Mike Hamm, then head of the DNR’s Enforcement Division. Since that audit in 2008, the agency’s Enforcement Division has been stabilized and become, in my mind, absolutely top-notch.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fishing opener 2016: Cold, wind, and lots of fish

Some traditions die hard. And other traditions – even those you have every intent to kill – simply refuse to be killed. Such was the case when Minnesota’s fishing season opened this past Saturday.

To the vast majority of folks, fishing opener means one thing: walleye opener. But it’s also the day the stream trout in inland lakes season opens. Which brings us back to dead traditions.

Several years ago, a few of us at our fish camp began going to Bad Medicine Lake to chase rainbow trout on opening day. It’s easy fishing – just dragging around shallow-running crankbaits in a relatively haphazard fashion – and I don’t recall a year we haven’t boated a few fish. I’m a terrible walleye fisherman, so it’s always nice to get the season started on the right foot.

John Albert with one of the day's first rainbow trout.

This year, though, I had every intention of breaking tradition. For one thing, few people in our camp planned to go to Bad Medicine. And for another, the weather forecast looked awful – temps in the low 30s and a stiff northwest wind. Sticking on our home lake – Round Lake – so we could easily go inside to warm up seemed very appealing. Alas, neither my brother nor I bought a trout stamp when we purchased our licenses Friday morning.

But my resolve began to crumble as Friday wore on. I didn’t have any illusions about catching walleyes in Round Lake, but I didn’t think we’d catch many trout, either. As we sat around Friday night and did the things you do at fish camp, I didn’t think much about fishing. (I did, though, field large numbers of plot-line suggestions for upcoming novels.)

As we sat at breakfast on Saturday morning, there was no doubt in my mind we were walleye fishing. Then someone asked Mike Hagen, who fishes in our boat each opening day, where we were going. “Ask Joe,” he said.

Suddenly, all eyes were on me.

“Bad Medicine,” I blurted out.

Damn tradition.

Ninety minutes later, trout stamp in hand, John, Mike and I were at Bad Medicine. It’s easily one of the prettiest lakes in the state, surrounded by pine trees and lacking, for the most part, a reliable cell signal. We’d made a good decision to continue the tradition.

Minutes after we started trolling, I hooked a fish. John had one on his line before I’d even landed mine. Yes, we’d made a very good decision.

The trout we catch are generally between about 10 and 17 inches. But they're willing to hit crankbaits hard, and they put up an admirable fight.

So long as we stayed out of the wind and in the sun, it was actually a very comfortable day on the water. And it didn’t hurt that we caught trout – lots of them.

We brought home 10 between the three of us, and probably released another 20. The plan is to grill them this week, and they certainly will taste better than the store-bought walleye fillets I’d otherwise be making.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fishing opener … or deer opener?

Fishing opener 2016: rods, reels, deer-hunting clothing.
It was easy to pack for this year’s fishing opener. I just grabbed the bin that contains my deer-hunting gear. The forecast for opening day – Saturday, May 14 – is remarkably similar to the conditions during last year’s Nov. 7 deer opener – a high of about 48 degrees and a low of 30 degrees. Not bad, until you throw in forecasted 21-mile-per-hour winds with gusts to 53 mph. Sounds uncomfortable to me, though it could result in a good “walleye chop,” I suppose.

It’s become our tradition to haul the boat to Bad Medicine Lake to fish for rainbow trout, but given the stiff northwest winds in the forecast, I don’t see that happening. So we’ll probably join the other half-million or so fishermen dragging Lindy rigs and pitching jigs for walleyes. Pretty much all the opening day prognostications I’ve seen call for walleyes to be in the shallows and actively feeding – read: easy to catch – though I know from experience that doesn’t mean I’ll find ‘em and catch ‘em.  

Best of luck to everyone heading out this weekend.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Up the creek

We took the kids out for a little adventure tonight, checking out Nine Mile Creek where it passes under 106th Street in Bloomington. I used to fish for carp down there as a kid, but it doesn't look anything like I remember it. In fact, it's hard to imagine carp in there at all. It looks nice and clean – almost like a trout stream that runs clear and cold.

As we were walking along the trail and beside an area of the creek with "rapids," we saw a hen mallard and her seven ducklings. Now, you don't often think of ducks as denizens of fast-moving water, but I'll be darned if that mother duckling wasn't leading her ducklings straight up the creek. And you'd be amazed by how well those little fur balls navigated their way against the current.

Admittedly, the image isn't great, but you get the gist of what I'm talking about.