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Should walleye limit be reduced to four?

You've got to hand it to Minnesota Senator Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley). He's taken on motherhood, the Minnesota fishing opener and walleye limits in one sweeping proposal.

Chaudhary, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, announced in mid-December his idea to:

-- Move the Minnesota fishing opener one week earlier in May, thus avoiding the almost annual conflict between that weekend and Mother's Day.

-- Reduce the state's walleye limit from its current six fish to four.

-- Impose a uniform slot limit on all walleye waters.

-- Allow young anglers to fish free for two more years (from age 16 to age 18) before having to buy a fishing license.

Here's a look at each of those issues and how Minnesotans are reacting to them.

Earlier fishing opener

Opening fishing season a week earlier is a win-win, State Senator Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley) said. It would give anglers and the tourism community an extra week of fishing and avoid a conflict with Mother's Day. Chaudhary maintains that climate change has brought spring and good fishing to Minnesota earlier than in the past, so moving the opener ahead would make sense.

In 2009, opener would be May 2 instead of May 9.

The proposal may be more popular in southern Minnesota than in the north, where some lakes are lucky to see ice-out by early May and walleyes might still be spawning. The Department of Natural Resources has taken no official position on Chaudhary's proposals.

"Everybody sure likes the sound of it opening earlier," said Sue Chalstrom of Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle in Duluth. "They're [anglers] just excited to get going. That waiting around when the weather's turning good just kills them."

And as a bait shop owner, Chalstrom is all for it.

"April is absolutely the worst month of the year, and May is the best, so getting into fishing earlier is better for anybody in the business," she said.

"It would do two things. It would get you off the Mother's Day thing, and it would get you another week of tourism," said Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. "My only concern is that the spawn isn't over yet. I've seen a lot of times when the fish are still in the creeks [in early May]."

Walleye spawning could be an issue in the north, DNR fisheries biologists say.

"That [a week-earlier opener] would not be good for up here," said Joe Geis, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Tower. "There would be a lot more years when walleyes could still be spawning."

The DNR collects walleye eggs during the spawning run at Pike River where it enters Lake Vermilion. On 15 of 45 years for which records are kept, the last day of egg collection occurred in May, Geis said.

Steve Persons, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Marais, said he has concerns about opening the fishing season earlier.

"I don't know that there's a lot of evidence to show there's a lot of change in the walleye spawning times [as a result of climate change]," Persons said. "You'd have to see some good evidence that it's safe before you did that."

"It's pretty overwhelming against making that change, from what I hear," said Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries manager at Grand Rapids. "Among all my colleagues with 20 to 30 years of experience, I don't think any of us can remember taking a complaint about Mother's Day."

A DNR advisory committee on walleye fishing unanimously opposes the earlier opener, said Tom Neustrom, a Grand Rapids fishing guide and member of the committee.

"Nobody's in favor of the early opener," Neustrom said. "We feel the climate hasn't proven it's changed that much. It may interfere with the spawning process."

Chaudhary has countered the spawning argument with a proposal to have different walleye limits in northern and southern Minnesota on an earlier opener. Anglers in the north would have to throw back more fish, according to his idea, although he offered no specific harvest restrictions. He notes that early-season walleye fishing with restrictive harvest limits already takes place on the Rainy River in April when fish are ascending the river to spawn.

"We'll be continuing the discussion with biologists to figure out if there's a way to implement an earlier opener without hurting spawning fish," Chaudhary said.

Some resorts in the north may have trouble getting ready for an earlier opener, Neustrom and Geis said.

"I know some of the resorts. They already have trouble getting set up, getting their cabins open, their water lines open," Geis said. "They don't think the earlier opener is going to be a good deal for them."

Ice-out probably would be an issue in some years with late springs.

"Our long-term [ice-out] average is May 3 or 4," said Phil Talmadge, DNR large-lake specialist for Rainy Lake. "You're putting the fishing opener right on top of that."

Four walleye limit and statewide slot limit

Already, several major walleye waters in northeastern Minnesota have four walleye limits rather that the statewide norm of six. Those waters include Lake Vermilion, Kabetogama Lake, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River.

State Senator Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley) has proposed reducing the statewide walleye limit to four in hopes of improving fishing.

"I'm tired of seeing people spend thousands of dollars to fly over Minnesota into Canada and spend their money at those resorts just to release dozens upon dozens of walleye," he said.

He believes Minnesota's walleye fishing "could be far better."

The state's Walleye Advisory Committee is split on the four-fish walleye limit, said Tom Neustrom, a Grand Rapids fishing guide and a committee member. He's opposed to changing the limit without a sound biological reason.

"If the population of walleyes in Minnesota was in trouble, or if we didn't have an Accelerated Walleye Stocking Program; when you take all of that into consideration, I don't see a reason to change the limit," Neustrom said.

Department of Natural Resources researchers say so few anglers regularly catch more than four walleyes that lowering the limit would cause only a 5 to 8 percent reduction in harvest.

"It's negligible from a population standpoint," said Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids.

But he said it could preserve some fish in short-term, hot-bite situations on specific lakes when word gets out about good fishing.

"It might redistribute the harvest among more anglers and over a longer time period," said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Rapids. "As far as saving a lot of fish, it doesn't. But it is a step in the right direction."

Fishing is good to excellent on most waters where a four-walleye limit is in effect, usually in combination with a protected slot limit. The four-walleye limit and a 17- to 26-inch protected slot limit took effect on Lake Vermilion in 2006.

"We expected we might hear more about it," the DNR's Geis said. "We haven't heard that many complaints about the four-bag on Vermilion."

Sue Chalstrom, owner of Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle in Duluth, thinks many anglers would go along with the four-walleye limit.

"It would save more fish for other years," she said. "I think catch-and-release has caught on beautifully."

"I guess I see [the four-walleye limit] as mostly a social issue," said Steve Persons, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Marais. "It's hard to defend biologically on individual waters in many cases. The best arena to fight it out is going to be the Legislature."

Chaudhary also has suggested a statewide slot limit under which walleyes from 13 or 14 inches up to 19 or 20 inches could be harvested, with one more than 20 inches allowed in a daily limit.

"We want to let the little ones grow," he said.

Most slot limits now preclude the harvest of walleyes from 17 inches to 26 or 28 inches.

"Seventeen inches seems to be a critical length on most lakes," the DNR's Kavanaugh said. "That's when females mature sexually and spawn for the first time."

Lake Winnibigoshish, the major lake in Kavanaugh's work area, now has a 17- to 26-inch protected slot limit in effect.

"A substantial portion of the harvest on Winnie [Lake Winnibigoshish, near Deer River] was from 17 to 18 inches [before the slot limit]," Kavanaugh said.

Youth license requirements

In an effort to encourage more young people to take up angling, State Senator Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley) wants to allow youths to fish without a license up to age 18. Currently, a license is required beginning at age 16. Dropping that requirement would take about $2 million from the Department of Natural Resources budget, according to the DNR. A Minnesota individual angling license costs $17.

"Seventeen to $20 doesn't seem like a lot to people like me who pay for licenses as a matter of course," Chaudhary said. "But to bring someone who has never fished before, who lives in a home where budgets are tight, it can make that difference."

Others say the cost of a license is negligible compared to other costs associated with fishing, including travel.

"It costs you $40 to fill up your [gas] tank," said Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids. "You mean I can't afford five gallons worth of fishing license?"

"I personally don't think that the license requirement is a deterrent for many of them [young people] to go fishing," said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Rapids. "And it would be a substantial revenue loss."

"We need to find out where we're going to come up with $2 million to allow kids to fish free," Chaudhary said. "Maybe adult anglers would be willing to pay more."