The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the beginning stages of a Quality Bluegill Initiative that seeks to improve and protect high-quality bluegill fisheries in the state.

That includes considering special regulations to five area lakes in the DNR’s Glenwood Management Area. Those changes would look to make a 10-fish bag limit for bluegills on Lake Osakis (Douglas and Todd County), Irene (Douglas County) and Grove (Pope County), and five-fish bag limits on Whiskey Lake (Douglas County) and Gilchrist (Pope County).

“Those are some of the lakes in our area that currently have or have had some of the highest quality bluegill fisheries in them,” Glenwood DNR fisheries specialist Chris Uphoff said. “We have a more extensive list and we’ll be introducing those five this year and additional lakes next year.”

Fisheries managers will be seeking public input on the proposed special regulations through meetings. Exact dates for those meetings have not been set yet, but Uphoff said they will likely be held this fall or early winter.

Anyone can contact the Glenwood Area Fisheries Department at any time by calling 320-634-7321 or emailing glenwood.fisheries@state.mn.us. If implemented, the regulations would go into effect in the spring of 2021.

The DNR said large sunfish have become scarce in many Minnesota lakes. In response to that, fisheries managers at local levels have identified lakes that would be a good fit for improvements in sunfish size through the reduction of bag limits.

“Typically, our lakes that produce bigger sunfish are a little bit lower densities and they’re a little bit more productive in that the fish grow faster in them,” Uphoff said of area lakes. “We have quite a few lakes where especially smaller bluegills are overabundant, and they’re competing for the limited resources that are there. They don’t get to the quality size that we’d like to see.”

Some angling groups have been asking the DNR to consider reducing the 20-fish bag limit for sunfish and adding length restrictions, but angler survey data show apprehension over a statewide bag limit reduction or length restrictions. That has led the DNR to look at special regulations on individual lakes that have the right biological characteristics to produce larger sunfish, and local angler support, to benefit from reducing the sunfish bag limit.

The proposed 10-fish bag limit applies to lakes in which anglers want to maintain current populations of large sunfish. The 5-fish bag limit applies to lakes in which anglers desire to increase sunfish size quality.

Uphoff said he would rate their work area as excellent as it pertains to the opportunity to catch sunfish. There are still lakes where the fish can grow fast and anglers are able to catch those bigger sizes.

“We also have a lot of lakes where we just have a lot of numbers and you can take a kid and catch as many as you want,” Uhoff said.

Some of the data the DNR collects has been showing a downward trend, though, in terms of bigger bluegills in local fisheries. That’s why Uphoff believes the proposed regulations changes on limited lakes in the area are necessary.

“Bluegills in the area are definitely harvest oriented, and those lakes that do have quality bluegills still remaining are targeted pretty heavily,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen over the years, both in our information and talking to anglers, a decrease in the number of the larger fish in these systems.”

On any lake, anglers can voluntarily help protect big sunfish by releasing or limiting their harvest of large sunfish, which are typically considered about eight inches or bigger.

In spring and early summer, sunfish nest in large colonies. Male sunfish compete for the best spawning sites in a lake. Only the largest sunfish build and defend nests. When anglers keep the largest sunfish, competition for spawning decreases and there is less need for smaller males to devote energy to grow larger.

Instead, with a lack of spawning competition, they devote more energy to spawning at younger ages and smaller sizes. In lakes where large sunfish become overharvested, sunfish may not grow as fast as they once did.

Through the DNR’s Quality Bluegill Initiative, fisheries managers aim to increase the number of special regulation lakes for sunfish from about 60 to between 200 and 250 lakes statewide by the year 2023. If applied locally on the right lakes, Uphoff is optimistic anglers could have better opportunities at catching bigger bluegills in the future.

“These regulations have been applied elsewhere in the state, and they’ve seen some really good improvements in the size quality of bluegills in the systems where it has been applied,” Uphoff said. “I can imagine, especially in the lakes here we’re proposing now, an increase in the large number of bluegills in these systems. Bluegill fishing should only get better if we are able to impose some of these regulations.”