McFeely: DNR's bluegill initiative could lower limits in Becker, Otter Tail lakes

The Minnesota DNR is proposing special regulations that would lower bag limits on bluegills on some lakes in an effort to produce bigger sunfish in many waters around the state. These special regulation proposals currently include five lakes within the Glenwood Area DNR's work area and could include almost two dozen lakes in Otter Tail County. (Forum News Service file photo)

FARGO — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a favorite punching bag for those who don't get everything they want all the time, is undertaking an initiative for which those who fish in the state should stand up and cheer.

Especially those who love to catch panfish, bluegills specifically.

Now, hopefully, the DNR will provide the same love to crappies. More on that later.

The DNR is in the process of finalizing plans for the Quality Bluegill Initiative, revealed last summer in the hope of going public early this spring. Implementation would happen in 2021. The goal was to greatly increase the number of lakes in the state with reduced limits for bluegills in hopes of growing bigger sunfish.

There are 13 Otter Tail County lakes and five Becker County lakes on list for possible lower limits.


Big sunfish, as anybody who's dunked a worm knows, is among the rarest of fish in Minnesota. A true trophy, 10 inches or longer, might be tougher to catch than an 8-pound walleye. Decades of liberal bag limits, anglers keeping too many big fish and the belief that you could never "overfish" sunnies took their toll.

For years anglers told the DNR they were more interested in catching numbers of bluegills, regardless of size, instead of big bluegills.

Attitudes, thankfully, are changing. More fishermen and lake association groups are telling the DNR they'd like to see more restrictive limits on sunfish so they can catch bigger fish.

The DNR spent the past several months identifying between 200 and 250 lakes on which it can cut the current statewide 20-fish limit to 10 or five sunfish. Lakes on the list needed to meet certain criteria, including public support and the biological capability to grow big bluegills.

Jim Wolters, DNR's area fisheries manager in Fergus Falls, said the 13 lakes in Otter Tail County under consideration for reduced sunfish limits are:

  • Bass (near Underwood)
  • Deer
  • East Lost
  • Fish (near Weetown)
  • Fish (near Parkers Prairie)
  • Franklin
  • Long (near Vergas)
  • Prairie
  • Red River Lake
  • Stuart
  • Wall
  • West Lost
  • West Silent

Nathan Olson, area fisheries chief in Detroit Lakes, said the five Becker County lakes under consideration are:

  • Height of Land
  • Tamarack
  • Buffalo
  • Little Sugar Bush
  • Big Floyd

Wolters and Olson said a final list will be released this spring. This year would be used to get the word out and solicit feedback over the summer with public input meetings in August or September.
This is terrific news for those who get just as excited about catching big bluegills as they do about walleyes, bass or muskies.

Equally positive is that, at least in certain cases, the public's attitude is switching from quantity to quality. Filling a 5-gallon pail with panfish is less important than catching a handful of dandies.


Now, about those crappies.

If the DNR sees fit to grow bigger bluegills in certain lakes — again, an initiative that is to be applauded loudly — then how about it take a look at Minnesota's other very popular panfish?

A five-fish limit, with a minimum size restriction of 10 or 11 inches, is proven to improve the overall size structure of crappies.

One needs only to look at two very busy lakes in Otter Tail County — Lida and Franklin — for evidence. Both get hit hard year-around by anglers seeking crappies, yet both have tremendous populations of crappies longer than 11 inches. That's because both lakes have restrictive limits for crappies — an 11-inch minimum on Lida and a 10-inch minimum with a five-fish limit on Franklin.

Size and bag limit restrictions for panfish work. Period.

And for those griping at the prospect of being able to keep fewer fish: How much more meat do you need than that provided by five big crappies? That's a meal for four people.

Here's hoping the DNR turns its focus to growing big crappies in more lakes after it wraps up its bluegill plan.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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