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Scott M

No Easy Fix for Large Fish

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There's no easy fix to problem of shrinking panfish

by Chris Niskanen, ST. Paul Pioneer Press

I was having coffee with some fishing guides in Walker, Minn., a few weeks ago when one began crowing about the great bluegill fishing on a certain lake.

Quickly, another guide chimed in, "We don't want you to write about that. You print something like that and those big bluegills will get fished out in no time."

The worried guide was right — big bluegills easily can be overfished. Department of Natural Resources biologists say the No. 1 cause for Minnesota's declining population of large bluegills is overfishing.

Though anglers blame stunted growth when lakes become populated with little panfish, more often the culprits are anglers taking bucketfuls of large bluegills and pumpkinseeds.

Last weekend, my daughters were anything but quiet about the bluegills we were catching in a northern Washington County lake. Every time my 4-year-old hoisted one over the gunwale, she screamed, "It's a keeper!"

Some were. Our rule: anything 8 inches or longer went into the livewell. The limit is 20 per person, so technically our family could keep 80 whopper bluegills.

But I knew 12 or 15 would be enough for dinner. We ended up keeping only six.

Smaller panfish bag limits might be in Minnesota's future.

Don Pereira, DNR fisheries research manager, said there is growing interest among anglers to further protect trophy sunfish populations. The DNR now has a "panfish advisory" committee of anglers who are advising the agency on panfish management.

"We have a number of lakes around the state that has panfish bag limits of five or 10 fish, and the advisory committee is requesting more of them," Pereira said.

Panfish — the family name for bluegill, pumpkinseeds and green sunfish — are the most popular fish in Minnesota. Yet schemes for managing them for trophy sizes — say, 8 inches and larger — have proven elusive.

Some years ago, Minnesota researcher Pete Jacobson studied eight Minnesota lakes with a history of good bluegill fishing. He tried an experiment using daily limits to try to increase the size of bluegills. Four lakes had the bag limit reduced from 30 to 10 fish; four other lakes retained a 30-fish limit.

After five years, three lakes with a 10-fish limit were producing bigger bluegills. But slow growth is a problem. In one lake, the average bluegill size jumped an inch, from 7.3 to 8.2, in five years. That was considered a success because in northern Minnesota bluegills grow exceedingly slowly.

A few years ago, with a mixture of grumbling and acceptance from anglers, the DNR lowered the statewide sunfish limit to 20. It is not known what effect that has had on overall size of sunfish in the state.

"Our advice to anglers is when you find a hot bite on large panfish, don't kill lots of the big fish," said Pereira. "To maintain these populations, it's really a matter of curtailing our kill."

Other experiments that protect predator fish such as northern pike and largemouth bass so they weed out small, stunted sunfish haven't been successful, mainly because in Minnesota the peak warm season for predators to eat lots of sunfish — midsummer — does not last long enough to sufficiently trim big schools of sunfish.

The problem of panfish stunting and overfishing is more connected than we thought.

Recent research shows that when large male bluegills are removed from a lake, the "pecking" order of spawning males is upset. With the larger "bull" males gone, the younger, smaller males assume spawning duties. They also begin maturing earlier. Thus begins a vicious cycle of small males successfully taking over spawning duties and never reaching large sizes.

We aren't sure if we disrupted the bluegill spawning habits in the lake we fished last weekend, but everyone knew we were catching fish when my daughter enthusiastically yelled, "They're keepers!"

Even though most of them weren't.

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Last weekend we were fishing on a lake with a daily limit of 5 sunfish. We ended up catching 6 sunfish over 9" 3 males and 3 females. The females went back immediately, being full of eggs. We had the males in the livewell for awhile, but they ended up back in the lake as well. After reading this i'm glad they all went back. We also caught quite a few large pumpkinseed. I was always told to throw these back, they have worms. Is this true or do people target pumpkinseeds?

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Great to hear those fish went back in the lake.

There are some lakes where pumpkinseeds do better than bluegill. Their diets and preferred habitats are slightly different than bluegills but mostly overlap. Check out the gill rakers the next time you fillet a pumpkinseed or bluegill. Gill rakers help keep food in the mouth when a fish inhales prey items. Bluegill have long gill rakers and p-seeds have short nubs...this is just one indicator of differences in diets.

P-seeds don't all have worms anymore than any other fish has worms. Pumpkinseeds can be a ton of fun, just like bluegills. They are absolutely gorgeous when in full colors and they often possess great strength. Many times when I catch one that barely fits in my hand I'll hold it tight and it will tremble strongly-they have some immense power for their size. I can think of a couple lakes that have really large p-seeds, but those lakes are loaded with large bluegills too. I don't target p-seeds, but I don't complain when they round out a nice bag of bluegills.

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I agree with most of what has been said, but I will add that in my experience pumpkinseeds have worms more often than bluegills in almost all of the lakes I have kept them. I just throw them back now as I hate to waste a fish and I enjoy catching them so much. They are unbelievably strong fighters.

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Wow what can be done in 1 year. Fished a popular lake south of prior and caught 50 crappies and 9 walleyes in 2 hours, on Saturday nite. We were just out to catch fish, so all fish were released back into the lake. All of the crappies except for a couple that(2) pushed 9 inchers, were between 5-7 inches. The walleyes were between 8-11 inches. This lake was known to give up nice crappies. I heard it got hit hard in the winter, and I think I saw the effects. It will take a couple of years to grow back. Usually get a few nice sunnies, but none mixed in with the crappies.

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I don't know, the solution doesn't seem all that difficult. From the article:

"Some years ago, Minnesota researcher Pete Jacobson studied eight Minnesota lakes with a history of good bluegill fishing. He tried an experiment using daily limits to try to increase the size of bluegills. Four lakes had the bag limit reduced from 30 to 10 fish; four other lakes retained a 30-fish limit.

After five years, three lakes with a 10-fish limit were producing bigger bluegills."

The key, it seems to me, is that some lakes historically produce bigger bluegills than others. These historical bluegill lakes should be designated as such and have reduced bluegill limits. The most phenomal big 'gill fishing I've had in this state has been on a lake that has a 5 fish daily limit.

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I agree with this idea on smaller bag limits. I would be happy with 5 crappie and 10 sunfish. I would like to see a couple lakes in the metro designated like this.

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The one that I was on on Saturday would be a good one. It is very popular. I wasn't planning on keeping any fish anyway and all fish caught were released, however I heard they had a very good winter. The lake is not that big.

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if anyone really cares, my opinion on pumpkinseeds is that if you get them from the deeper water they are a lot less likely to be wormy than the ones in shallow water.

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Boy Glenn I believe that is twice now you have started with (if anyone cares). Of course your opinions and comments are wanted, and appreciated.

I agree deeper is better for size. Could not tell you about the wormeness. (is that a word).

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garyc, ok i will quit using that phrase, it seems like on occasions when ive added my.02 the post died. gave me a complex, well just a little one. i know from my experience with punkenseed sunfish when you catch them deep they are bigger and not wormy. yea we will consider it a word.

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Tom, that is a great article. I especially like this quote: "Anyone who cleans a limit (or more) of giant bluegills isn’t a ’Gill Master, but rather a pilferer, a poacher of what could be."

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garyc, no we usually dont travel that far, but if theres a lake i know over there that would be worth the drive id do it. we usually dont go further than macell area or winnie in the other direction.

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You don't find the grubs as often in the deeper water fish because it comes from bird [PoorWordUsage]. Birds defecate the grub eggs into the water, where they then take onto the tiny snails in water, fish eat the little snails and become infected. Birds eat the fish, and the cycle continues. So the fish in shallow waters are more so affected, because thats where the snails and birds are. They are still safe to eat if you cook them properly.

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