Neil De Master on Flickr

A beautiful, large sunfish is one of the most prized catches on a Minnesota fishing trip. Available throughout the year, currently the fishing community harvests more than 16 million of them annually and across the state. To compound this effect, sunfish are known as “eager biters”, particularly the larger and more aggressive male fish, and anglers have grown used to the thrill of finding one on the end of their line.

Recently, reeling in a larger specimen has become more and more of a rare occurrence. Some experts believe that fishing practices play a role in the population’s decline and that something can be done to reverse the trend.

Some of the reasons behind the decline

For years, anglers believed that the sunfish population wasn’t vulnerable to decline. They grew used to pulling the largest sunfish possible out of the water, often multiple times in a single fishing trip, and keeping their catches. The net result of this activity is that a larger amount of smaller males, defined as less than eight inches in length, are left behind.

While this has obvious short-term effects on the population of larger sunfish in a given lake, there is a long-term impact as well. That’s because of the fact that the responsibility for building and defending spawning nests falls on the male sunfish. They compete with each other, sometimes aggressively, for the best spawning sites and typically large males come out on top. Fewer larger males mean there are more opportunities for younger males to reproduce and guard a nest instead of growing larger. In the long-term, this pattern results in higher populations of smaller-sized sunfish.

Reversing the trend

Wildlife experts and some anglers believe there are policies which can be put in place to help increase sunfish size. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently considering reducing the number of fish anglers can take home, known as a bag limit, from the current limit of 20. They’re also considering changing the size of a fish that are allowed to be kept, encouraging people to keep higher amounts of smaller fish and to return larger, spawning males to the water. Research has shown that generally, once these fish are able to return to their habitat they’ll continue to grow and to compete for spawning sites.

Proceeding carefully

As it considers implementing these new rules, the DNR is proceeding strategically. The organization is listening to input from the fishing community and incorporating feedback into plans. For example, when anglers expressed concerns about implementing the rules across the state as a whole, the DNR began looking at ways to implement it on a lake-by-lake basis. Lakes are chosen based on their biology and on the amount of support for the regulations that are present from the local fishing community.

In addition to these approaches, the DNR is also increasing communications campaigns, publishing as much information as possible about what is happening and about how the fishing community can help. They’re reminding anglers that these rules will ultimately provide them with the sought-after catch of a large sunfish that can turn a good fishing trip into a great one. They’re also asking all anglers to consider voluntarily proceeding according to the new regulations, even in lakes that aren’t affected by the new rules.

While time-honored fishing practices are not simple to move away from, hopefully, this is one case when a change will ultimately be for the better. Doing things in a new way is never easy, but it can make a difference, improving both the environment and the anglers’ experience on Minnesota lakes.