Nate Blasing is president of the Walleye Alliance, a Brainerd-based group that wants the legislature to reduce Minnesota’s walleye limit from six to four. Blasing, 43, is a part-time fishing guide and a University of Minnesota Duluth graduate who studied environmental science and communications. In the interview below, he explains why his group wants to lower the state walleye limit.
Q: Describe the Walleye Alliance.
A: We are a 4 year old group whose members include resort owners, guides, tournament anglers and others. Our mission is to educate, conserve and promote responsible walleye fishing. We have between 400 and 600 members. We sponsor a few tournaments a year and host a fundraising banquet.
Q: Are the lakes in the Brainerd region your main focus?
A: We are based in Brainerd. But we have statewide concerns.
Q: How would you rate walleye fishing in the Brainerd area?
A: That’s pretty good. But many of the region’s most popular lakes are home to zebra mussels, including Gull, Pelican, North Long, and Whitefish Chain. These lakes are also under heavy fishing pressure. Guides in the area started a few years ago to find that it was more difficult to catch walleye consistently. So we formed the Alliance and started meeting with MNR fisheries managers. We have since learned that we don’t have much natural walleye reproduction in the lakes in the area and are instead very reliant on stocking. MNR has historically stocked most lakes primarily with fingerlings. The problem now seems to be that the fry are not surviving because the zebra mussels are taking away the fry’s food source. Fry survive better but are much more expensive and can be difficult to obtain.
Q: Are fingerlings usually stocked in lakes in the area?
A: A little. DNR started on Gull with a few fry and has since worked on Pelican and Whitefish. The lake associations helped and our group bought fingerlings to supplement the stocking of the MNR. Fall electroshock surveys show a decline in young walleye of the year in many lakes. In response, MNR added fingerlings in an attempt to stabilize walleye populations. MNR trap data shows that these lakes are exploited at unsustainable rates in some years. When the fry fail, there are several gaps in the age classes of walleye populations.
Q: What is the fishing pressure like on Brainerd Lakes?
A: There is significant recreational use of our lakes. The fishing pressure is also high – more than I can ever remember. In mid-summer, it is early in the morning or in the evening that you have to fish to avoid boaters. Years ago, our little lakes didn’t have much pressure. Now no matter what time you arrive, the trucks and trailers are in the parking lots.
Q: Do you only guide walleyes or all species?
A: According to the client, I will fish anything. Keeping fish is less important to people than catching them. In this regard, the reduced limit for walleye will be a benefit as it will spread out the harvest, helping more people to catch fish that otherwise would not.
Q: How responsive has the DNR been to your concerns?
A: As responsive as possible. But the decisions they make must be biologically sound. On some things we had to push pretty hard. But overall we were satisfied.
Q; How did you get the limit reduction bill before lawmakers?
A: Years ago some of us started talking about how we could make our voices heard. Over time, we formed the Walleye Alliance and started talking to the DNR. Shortly after, we contacted our state senator, Carrie Ruud, and told her about the walleye problem as we saw it and asked her for help. She agreed to be the author of the bill reducing the walleye limit. We believe it is supported by many anglers.
Q: The MNR Walleye Working Group, originally called the Walleye Advisory Committee, has members who also want a lower walleye limit.
A: Yes, but we weren’t aware of this until three years ago at the MNR Roundtable. They wanted the DNR to do it by changing the rules. We have chosen the legislative route, supported by fishermen in the field.
Q: Many MNR fisheries biologists oppose the change, saying it will not improve walleye populations.
A: But the DNR leadership supports it. I met Commissioner Sarah Strommen on Sunday …
A: Yes, by Zoom and she expressed her support. I also appeared on a podcast with DNR Head of Fisheries Brad Parsons and he backed it up. Many current MNR biologists also support it.
Q: What about the fisheries biologists who say the limit should be reduced to two or three to make a difference?
A: Simple math tells us that four fish is less than six, so that’s a saving. Additionally, Minnesota’s six-fish limit, established in 1956, was based on a mix of social and biological considerations, so there is precedent for our proposal to be based at least in part on the support of anglers.
Q: But what if popular opinion held that no walleye should be kept, or even that sport fishing should be banned altogether? Isn’t it a slippery slope to manage fish and wildlife by public opinion rather than established science-based standards?
A: Most fishing limits are a combination of social and biological considerations. And our proposal is not entirely society-oriented. When you consider recent changes in water clarity due to zebra mussels and new advanced fish finding technology which is absolutely frightening how effective it can be, and other changes affecting fishing in recent years, there is a scientific component to our proposal. I would add that part of the job of the DNR is to listen to the speakers. It’s not all about numbers. The DNR must take into account what the public wants.
Q: So why not put all of Minnesota’s fish and wildlife management to a vote, or at the whim of politicians rather than professionals? We already have a governor who granted a teal hunting season to his friends in southeastern Minnesota against the recommendations of DNR waterfowl managers. Why not open everything?
A: Keep in mind that a small percentage of anglers catch most of the fish. I am one of those fishermen. If we are willing to give up some fish that we would otherwise catch so that others can catch them, or at least have a chance to catch them, that is a good thing. The bottom line is a limit of four walleyes of which one allowed over 20 inches will not harm any lake and it might help some.
Q: Do you expect the bill to pass?
A: We are hopeful. When we talk to fishermen about zebra mussels and fishing pressure, etc., the proposal makes sense to them. Our goal is to ensure that future generations can fish for walleye as we are accustomed to. This is why we must be proactive rather than reactive to protect the resource.
Editor’s Note: To read a previously published interview with retired MNR Fisheries Supervisor Gary Barnard of Bemidji, who has an opposing view on reducing the walleye limit, go to https: //tinyurl.com/46wherxe.