Minnesota DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira talks walleyes, other fishing issues
Don Pereira is fisheries chief of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A Boston native and unabashed Bruins fan, Pereira is a 30-year fisheries research and management veteran and was the DNR's fisheries research and policy manager from...
Don Pereira is fisheries chief of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A Boston native and unabashed Bruins fan, Pereira is a 30-year fisheries research and management veteran and was the DNR’s fisheries research and policy manager from 2007 until becoming fisheries chief last November.
As fisheries chief, he oversees a $30 million annual budget and a staff of 290 full- and part-time employees based in four regional offices, 28 area offices and five hatcheries.
With Saturday’s Minnesota walleye opener fast approaching, Pereira talked walleyes and other fish-related issues with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken.
Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q. Going into the walleye opener, it’s looking like another late spring. How is that going to factor into fishing opening day?
A. Typically, if the water’s that cold, it slows things down a bit, especially on our deeper lakes. Hopefully it won’t be too slow. There’s definitely some lakes around the area that have some fish in them.
Q. Do you expect some of the northern lakes to still have ice?
A. It’s hard to say. Obviously, it depends on how things unfold this coming week. I think we should be OK. Maybe up in the northeast, some of those cold pockets might still have a good sheet of ice on them.
Q. Will those fish be harder to catch or will the weather dictate that?
A. If the water is really cold, it might slow fishing down a bit, but on the other hand, there still could be aggregations of fish post spawn possibly, too.
Q. I know there are some issues on Mille Lacs, but overall, how are walleyes looking across the state?
A. Mille Lacs is a trouble spot here, but a bunch of the large lakes are just really firing on all cylinders now; they’re looking great. I think Rainy has produced - typically we get a strong year-class one out of four years - I think the last five years they’ve produced three strong year-classes up there. In the five-year period between 2006 and 2010, they’ve produced three strong year-classes, so there’s quite an abundance of fish in Rainy right now.
Red Lake as you know is in great shape. In fact, we’ve been harvesting so much there we might have to slow it down a little bit with a little bit more restriction on the regulations there. And Leech, we actually have an issue with too many fish. We’re going to lighten up the slot (limit) on Leech. We’ve got perch abundance in a decline there, we’ve got walleye condition declining and growth and maturity rates declining on the walleye, so we definitely need to get into Leech and actually encourage some more harvest.
Q. Mille Lacs is off the radar for most of us up here. Could you talk in general terms about what’s going on with the walleyes there?
A. It’s really complicated because it’s been kind of a steep learning curve in trying to figure out how to accommodate the tribal harvest and work with our regulations. Basically, what we inadvertently did was have too much fishing mortality focused on that narrow size range of fish, like 15 to 18 inches, so, that’s the easy thing to fix.
We’ve had a lot of physical changes on that system that are really rather perplexing. We had water clarity increase beginning in the mid- to late ’90s and that certainly predated zebra mussels, so this isn’t something zebra mussels have caused. And when we saw water increase in clarity, we started seeing a shift in behavior of young-of-the-year walleyes during their first summer. Our seining catches up on the beaches were going on, and we started getting young-of-the-year fish in our gill nets in deeper water in September. The hypothesis was the shallows were just too bright and those small fish when they became light sensitive just moved off shore sooner than they normally would have. We know we’ve documented an increased rate of mortality in walleyes sometime after their first summer until they’re about 3 years old so we’re trying to figure out what’s going on there.
At the same time, we’ve had smallmouth bass doing very well. There’s some fantastic fish in there, so we’re opening up bass fishing there, we’re going to have a one-over-18-inches (limit) because we do want to preserve those quality fish. There’s not a lot in the way of walleye harvest, but perhaps we can direct some of the harvest to smallmouth bass.
And pike has been increasing pretty dramatically. In recent years - we have targeted assessment nets specifically for pike - and in the past two years we’ve had record catches of young-of-the-year and 1-year-old pike.
Q. You had a chance to sample spring sturgeon fishing last weekend up on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River. What did you think of it?
A. I was surprised by the number of boats. On the one hand, that’s great, especially during that time of year when everything else is kind of quiet for fishing; it’s great to see that economic activity come to the area up there. On the other hand, you start to worry a little bit about what harvest rates might be. But as you know we’re doing that detailed assessment this year anyway, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a good handle on that. It’s a spectacular fishery.
Q. What is it about walleye that makes it so popular?
A. It’s the state fish and as you know, the state has had these 10 large lakes that are just amazing walleye factories, and in the right conditions, the animal can be amazingly productive and produce a lot of fish and drive really good fishing. People really like to eat them, and in a lot of situations, they can be a tricky fish to catch, but when fishing is good in places like Upper Red or elsewhere, folks can catch a lot of nice fish.
Q. Talk about invasive species. Is awareness at the point where it needs to be?
A. I’m not sure with awareness. You would hope with all the outreach that we’ve been doing that people are getting the message. I’m not sure what enforcement would tell us for compliance on, for example, the drain plug law (which requires plugs to be pulled after leaving the access), but I think it might be going reasonably well.
The problem is you can’t reduce the probability of transfer to zero. I mean you can just get it as low as you can and hope that if there is a transfer that happens inadvertently, it’s not enough to establish a new population.
On the other hand, We haven’t seen any dramatic declines in native species because of these invaders. Now maybe that’s yet to happen but I’m not seeing any real severe changes yet.
So hopefully we’ll be OK. Nature quite often is more resilient than we give it credit for and adjustments are made.