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DNR extends spottail shiner trapping on Upper Red, 3 other lakes – 2 days after gear had to be out of water

Spottail shiners are the go-to baitfish for many Minnesota walleye anglers from the fishing opener through late May into early June, but supplies have been tight this spring.

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Jonny Petrowske sets hard-sided minnow traps to catch spottail shiners in April 2015 on Upper Red Lake.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske
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ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday, May 24, said it would allow minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in four lakes designated as infested for zebra mussels – Upper Red, Otter Tail, North Long and Gull – to resume trapping the popular baitfish until Tuesday, May 31, or until water temperatures hit 55 degrees.

Unfortunately, the extension came two days after the original deadline of May 22 for removing minnow traps from the affected waters, and minnow dealers had already removed their gear, said Jonny Petrowske, a minnow dealer from Waskish, Minnesota, who traps spottail shiners on Upper Red Lake.

“I’m a little bit upset about this,” Petrowske said Tuesday.

Spottail shiners are the go-to baitfish for many Minnesota walleye anglers from the fishing opener through late May into early June, but supplies have been tight this spring.

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A swimmer found a zebra mussel on a rock in Long Lake north of Willmar, and her father contacted the DNR. A search found one zebra mussel at each of two locations searched by DNR snorkelers.

A late ice-out and persistent cool water temperatures delayed the spawning run of spottail shiners into the shallow water where they can be trapped, and Petrowske says he trapped only 57 gallons of spottails before he had to remove his gear from the lake.

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That compares with hundreds of gallons in the years before Upper Red was designated as an infested water for zebra mussels, he says.

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Spottail shiners are a prized bait among Minnesota walleye anglers early in the season. In North Dakota, live shiners aren't legal baitfish.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske

Larval zebra mussels, called veligers, were found in Upper Red Lake in March 2019, but adult zebra mussels haven’t yet been found.

The restrictions, Petrowske says, are just too cumbersome. Gear in zebra mussel-infested waters must be lake specific, and that should be enough to alleviate any risks, he says.

Hard-sided minnow traps are the most effective gear for trapping spottail shiners, while seines and dip nets that don’t stay in the water overnight are less effective. Like Upper Red, most of Minnesota’s traditional spottail-trapping lakes are designated as infested waters for zebra mussels, invasive mollusks that cling to hard surfaces, interrupt the food chain and become more active as water temperatures rise.

"I really believe the DNR is denying historical usage of a resource" with the various restrictions, Petrowske said. "I feel the bait harvesters are being singled out where we have to go through so many hoops and ladders, while the boaters and other people that use these resources don't have to do that."

The four lakes where the extension was granted Tuesday are part of a pilot project the DNR launched this spring on seven lakes to explore best practices for trapping spottail shiners in waters infested with zebra mussels. The same water temperatures that trigger spottail shiners to move into shallow water to spawn are the same water temperatures that trigger invasive zebra mussels to lay eggs and the tiny veligers to become more active, said Sean Sisler, commercial aquatic programs and fish health consultant for the DNR in St. Paul.

Before the pilot project, minnow dealers weren’t allowed to use hard-sided traps in zebra mussel-infested waters.

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Complicating the shortage is a Minnesota DNR requirement that minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in waters designated as infested with zebra mussels must remove their gear by Monday, May 23.

The DNR granted the extension after staff measured the water temperatures in Upper Red and the three other lakes and determined they still were cool enough to safely allow spottail trapping to resume, Sisler said. Other lakes in the pilot project were already too warm to safely trap spottails without the risk of veligers hitching a ride in the water used to transport shiners from the lake, he said.

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Water temperature is the driving factor, and while minnow dealers are required to have fresh water for transporting their catch, there’s still a risk of inadvertently moving veligers, Sisler said.

“Every time you move it with those nets, water comes with the fish – they’re not being completely dried off,” he said. “You look at different ways to see if you can get those veligers out, but they’re just too numerous once they start really popping out.”

Because he removed his 18 minnow traps from the north shore of Upper Red on Sunday and has cleaned and stored them for the season, Petrowske said he won’t reset the traps because of the time and labor involved.

Each trap measures 4x4x8 feet and weighs about 250 pounds, he says.

“We spent a day pulling our traps so we’re out by the deadline, and I spend another day hauling them home and washing and storing them,” Petrowske said. “Now they’re telling us we can go back in the lake after we’ve pulled all the gear and spend maybe a day of trapping and then we have to pull all the gear back out again?

“The logistics don’t work.”

In the meantime, DNR staff and minnow dealers who choose to reset their traps will log water temperatures daily, Sisler said. Even with the late spring, many lakes are approaching – and, in some cases past – the 55-degree threshold, he said.

“If we get two days in a row above 55 degrees, they’ll get contacted and know that they need to get their gear out by the next day,” Sisler said.

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The decision to extend the deadline came from higher up in the DNR, Sisler said. Numerous resorts, bait shops and minnow dealers contacted the agency about the shortage of spottails. It should be noted that live shiners are not legal baitfish in North Dakota.

“At least they’re getting a few extra days to harvest, and many were saying they hadn’t even started getting (spottails),” Sisler said. “I know there are some logistics about moving gear around, and when you have big gear, that can be difficult. Some of the lakes are using smaller gear, so it’s not as big of a deal for them.

“We’re trying to do our best to be responsive.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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