The politics of the ‘walleye session’

rep_fishToday Gov. Mark Dayton holds a public forum on the hardships facing business owners on Mille Lacs after the DNR warned that it may have to suspend walleye fishing on the big lake in August.

Earlier this week, the governor’s spokesman Linden Zakula made this statement:

“Governor Dayton spoke today with both Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt about a Special Session in August to provide emergency disaster relief to Mille Lacs resorters and other area businesses, if it becomes necessary to close the walleye fishing season.  The Governor and his staff have been working over the past week to design a financial aid package, which could consist of zero interest loans, property tax abatements, and additional tourism advertising and promotion funds.
“Both the Speaker and the Majority Leader expressed initial receptivity and readily agreed that, in the event of a walleye fishing closing, the serious consequences would warrant a special session to provide financial assistance.  They suggested a working group of themselves, other legislative leaders, and the governor’s designees to develop a relief package.

Republicans responded favorably and issued their own statements supporting aid for Mille Lacs businesses (while chiding the governor for the DNR’s decision). Today at 11:45 a.m. Gov. Dayton will travel to Isle High School for a roundtable discussion regarding the walleye population in Lake Mille Lacs. This event is open to the press and the governor will answer questions afterward.

I’ve already heard from a number of people very upset that somehow this state can generate political collaboration to help people affected by fish populations, but not for a multitude of arguably more important issues. Further, the image it casts as nearly 500 workers at United Taconite prepare for a lengthy layoff is pretty bad.

The fundamental issue at play here is the role of the Department of Natural Resources. Is Mille Lacs a balanced lake ecosystem or is a sporting fish farm? The DNR approaches such issues from a wildlife and habitat management standpoint, with sport fishing as an important but secondary concern. In this instance, the complicated challenge of keeping walleye healthy when humans really want to eat the grownups while bass and pike really want to eat the babies is pretty much impossible.

But because so many Minnesotans, regardless of their politics, agree that good walleye fishing is good public policy, Gov. Dayton feels the need to act here. Republicans are glad to join in because they can turn around and blame Dayton for the original problem.

But the original problem is that the natural world doesn’t care about your politics. Too much fishing or bad weather means there will be fewer walleye. Ask your local snowmobile dealer how they feel about their very similar perils.



  1. While I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the resort owners and the launch operators on Mille Lacs, I think the root cause of the population crash is cultural in its origins. Statewide there is a fixation on walleye that borders on monomania. It would amount to regional comedy if the consequences on Mille Lacs — and Red Lake before that — weren’t so dire.

    Don’t get me wrong: the walleye is an attractive fish, and catching them can be a real challenge. I’d be happy enough to eat a plate of them anytime. But from an angling standpoint, smallmouth bass and northerns are far sportier, and in my opinion the latter are the tastiest of the bunch. And a more robust harvest of northerns and bass would likely benefit walleye recruitment in the long run. The DNR has tried to encourage as much, but in doing so they’re waging a battle against generations of ingrained prejudice. Too bad.

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