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A shiner shortage: Why the popular walleye bait is hard to find

A net full of spottail shiner minnows at Christopherson Bait in Alexandria. The local bait shop got in the shiners late last week for the first time since the opener as the popular bait for walleye anglers has been hard to find at shops all over the state. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Alexandria's Travis Hochhalter was in a small crowd on the Minnesota fishing opener this year in that he was able to find some spottail shiner minnows to chase walleyes with.

Hochhalter and his buddy, Joe Scegura, who guides on many of the lakes around central Minnesota, were able to get some in Nisswa. For those who are serious about targeting walleyes, the spottails can be worth the drive.

"Any lake we have been on, (spottail) shiners have been producing some fish," Hochhalter said.

The predicament for many anglers is that they could not find them. Jim Bosek of Bosek Fisheries in Garfield said the spawn for shiner minnows is generally triggered by water temperatures in the upper 60-degree range. That makes for a tight window when it comes to harvesting the minnows and getting them to bait dealers for the Minnesota walleye and pike opener on the second weekend of May. This year, it proved almost impossible as a late ice out meant shiners were not yet up in the shallows to catch.

"That's what we're into this year," Bosek said. "Opener is a big thing in Minnesota. Everyone is excited, but the one thing about opener is there's very few walleyes caught. It's too early after the spawning runs. They're not really feeding yet. The prime fishing is next week with Memorial Day weekend. Then the next couple weeks after that. The spottail lake shiners, the golden shiners, it's going to all hit when the fishing is the best."

Bosek raises golden shiners in his private ponds that he can monitor closely. He sells some to individual dealers, including to the Blade's Store in Holmes City. Blade's has the golden shiners now and had them available for the opener.

Bosek's main bait sales are to wholesale dealers who deliver them. He will produce anywhere from 400 to 1,000 gallons of golden shiners a year. The main wholesaler who he deals with was hoping for 100 gallons of minnows ahead of the opener. Bosek was only able to get him six.

"They just haven't started yet," he said on May 18. "When they run, we pick up 50 gallons a day. A thousand gallons a year is our goal, but we're still a few days out from the main run."

Regulations too tight?

Weather can mess with the availability of bait shops to have shiners on hand, but dealers and trappers point to tight regulations in Minnesota as another hurdle to jump through.

Bosek used to regularly trap and sell spottail shiner minnows, but that has changed.

The rise of lakes infested with aquatic invasive species in Minnesota has made it more difficult for many minnow trappers to keep up with demand that anglers have for the popular bait. Spottails cannot be harvested and distributed out of infested waters, with the DNR trying to slow the spread of invasives such as zebra mussels. The minnows are also susceptible to a fish-killing disease known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS). The Department of Natural Resources requires lakes that the shiners are caught from to be certified as VHS free. That cost generally falls onto the trapper collecting the fish.

"If you want to do that, you have to pay for the test to the tune of about $600 and it takes several days," Dana Freese of Christopherson Bait in Alexandria said. "I would have to have the lake tested before the shiners ever ran and hope that they did and that I could get them. Or I'd have to test five or six lakes to make sure I could get them, which would cost me $2,500-3,000. There's only so many places you can do it and there's only so much cost that can be incurred."

Bosek caught most of his spottail shiners in Douglas County on a lake like Miltona before zebra mussels were discovered in the lake.

"It just got to the point where we were over regulated on everything," Bosek said. "A lot of the trappers just quit dealing with them."

The golden shiner debate

Getting golden shiners to bait shops comes with its own set of challenges.

Goldens are native to eastern North America and are one of the two most common species of minnow that are commercially farmed for use as bait in the U.S. For producers like Bosek, it has become good business. He said he sells a gallon of golden shiners at retail for about $100. The cost to wholesalers is about $50-60 a gallon.

The problem is trying to keep up with demand from anglers.

"There's not nearly enough of those to go around," Freese said. "We have a shortage every winter late."

Minnesota does not allow golden shiners to be imported from other states, a ban that has been fought at the State Legislature in recent years. The DNR has won that fight to this point, saying it is an important defense against VHS and invasive carp. Young Asian carp can be hard to distinguish from golden shiner minnows.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, led a charge during the 2017 Legislative session in Minnesota to lift the ban on importing the golden shiners from fish farms in Arkansas. Bait dealers argue that minnows from those farms come from closed systems that are monitored closely to prevent the spread of invasive species and fish disease.

The DNR was mandated by the state legislature in 2017 to provide a report that assessed the risk of importing golden shiners into Minnesota waters from Arkansas. The report, which was prepared by Jeffrey Gunderson, a fisheries and aquaculture extension educator through the University of Minnesota for more than 30 years, said that key vulnerabilities and risks were found when looking at potentially allowing the goldens to be imported from Arkansas.

"Prevention policies are more cost-effective and offer greater ecological benefits than attempting to control the spread of species that do arrive in the state," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr wrote in a letter to the chairs on the state's Environment and Natural Resource committees. "Regulating pathways of potential expansion is the best way to reduce the risk of introduction or spread of aquatic invasive species because those regulations are simple to follow and to enforce. Given the risks and costs identified in the report, the Department of Natural Resources recommends not allowing the importation of golden shiners from Arkansas."

No new legislation regarding the golden shiner was passed in the recent legislative session that came to a close early this week.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

(320) 763-1229
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