At 67-years-old, Dean Beck can still remember well how a letter he wrote as a sixth-grader to a district fisheries biologist in Kansas impacted his eventual career choice.
Beck’s question in that letter was pretty straightforward.
“How can I get a job like that?” Beck asked. “He was kind enough to reply to me, and I’ve had a laser focus from then on through college and work experiences. I feel like I’m walking away from a dream. I’m supposed to be excited, but I’m honestly kind of sad.”
After 31 years and six months as the Glenwood DNR fisheries supervisor, Beck officially retired from that position on Aug. 4. The DNR is in the middle of a hiring freeze right now that will delay the process of finding Beck’s long-term replacement. Bill McKibbin, the Glenwood assistant area supervisor, will assume the role of area supervisor until the hiring freeze is lifted.
In many ways, Beck’s idea of a career in fisheries management is what he thought it would be. He’s fascinated by the science behind it all and using the data he and his team have collected from local lakes over the years to inform decisions. But the position also comes with many challenges when an ecosystem is not performing exactly the way some want it to.
“I think the kid and my biological interest were directed at the resource, but the reality is that fish management is largely people management,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but I think I’ve adapted and it has been a very interesting, challenging and satisfying career.”
Beck came to Minnesota from Kansas -- a state not known for having the diverse fish species in its lakes like there are around here. Angling opportunity falls about third on the priority list for the purpose lakes should serve out there, he said.
“I’m still in awe of the resources up here,” Beck said. “There are changes occurring, but there will always be fishing and just the diversity of opportunities up here (are great). I think it’s probable with the clearing lakes with zebra mussels, we’ll see more vegetation growth. That will benefit bass, bluegill and northern pike to some potential detriment to walleye. That’s a bitter pill for those, but we’ll always have good fishing. These lakes are amazing.”
Zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species have been at the center of some of the biggest changes Beck said he has seen in area lakes during his career.
“You tend to think you’re evaluating and seeing trends, and then boom, here comes an invasive species,” he said. “That kind of resets how you think and what you’re doing.”
Beck has been nervous about some of the young-of-the-year walleye data the Glenwood staff has gathered through studies in recent years. The recruitment of young fish on some of the best area walleye waters like Minnewaska, Miltona and Ida has been especially notable.
“We’re seeing changes in walleye reproduction, or at least recruitment of young fish into the system even though we’re still stocking,” Beck said. “That’s a bitter pill. I’m not sure yet how to respond to that. If the fish we’re stocking are not making it and the natural reproduction, if those fish are not recruiting, then how do we respond to that?
“We’re seeing clear water in response to the zebra mussels, but that’s not necessarily conducive to total fish productivity. The zebra mussels are disrupting the food chain, and I’ve got less total carrying capacity for game fish.”
Beck has also seen the impact water levels can have on a system. He came to the Alexandria area in the 1980s after a couple of extremely wet years. Lakes like Red Rock, Oscar and Rachel went up six or seven feet, he said. All the additional habitat and carrying capacity that resulted from that led to tremendous responses from fish communities.
“Then we went into a drought, or water levels have been adjusted and we’re back to an aging system and a little lower plateau,” Beck said of today. “It’s a little more challenging to recreate those exceptional fisheries we had for that honeymoon period.”
Beck said northern pike numbers from their surveys on the Alexandria Chain of Lakes this year are way up. Lake Darling in particular showed catches of 25 pike per gill net.
This area is part of the DNR’s North Central Zone for pike regulations due to the overabundance of small northern pike in many lakes. Anglers can keep 10 northerns, but not more than two longer than 26 inches, and all from 22-26 inches must be released.
The goal with these regulations is to remove more small pike that can wreak havoc on a lake’s prey base because of how often they feed. The DNR’s webpage on northern pike has a video tutorial on how to remove the small “Y” bones that northerns are known for, but getting anglers to keep and eat enough pike that can make a difference in an ecosystem remains challenging.
“I still get complaints or questions on why in the world would I want to clean that small pike?” Beck said. “Because if you want walleye, (we need to get rid of some of those pike).”
In his retirement, Beck plans to do a little more fishing himself. There is some traveling to do and personal projects to tackle.
He also wants to help establish projects locally through the Douglas County Water Quality Legacy Fund. That fund helps meet cost-share requirements to get grant funding for projects that impact water quality at a local level.
Beck wants to stay connected to the people he says have made the job so enjoyable over the years. He has greatly appreciated the local lake associations that have allowed him an avenue to discuss and explain what their research is showing on area lakes.
“I really appreciate the people I’ve interacted with,” Beck said. “Giving a young man from Kansas with a fish interest an opportunity to move up to Minnesota, ‘Wow.’ That’s why I can’t believe it’s over. I was a kid in a candy store. It’s been a flash, but I’ll be around for a bit. Hopefully I can say some goodbyes and extend those thanks in person. It’s been fun.”