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Late spring wreaks havoc on spottail shiner run, to the detriment of minnow dealers and bait shops

Complicating the shortage is a Minnesota DNR requirement that minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in waters designated as infested with zebra mussels must remove their gear by Monday, May 23.

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Jonny Petrowske of Waskish, Minnesota, stands by his spottail shiner-trapping setup Thursday, May 19, 2022, on the north shore of Upper Red Lake. The red tags on his gear are part of the requirement for trapping spottail shiners from waters infested with zebra mussels. Spottails have been hard to come by this spring because of the late iceout and cool water temperatures, and minnow dealers trapping shiners from zebra mussel-infested waters must remove their gear by day's end Sunday, May 22, 2022.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske
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GRAND FORKS – Minnesota walleye anglers who prefer fishing with spottail shiners this time of year – and the dealers and bait shops that supply them – are having a tough go of it this spring.

The delectable baitfish, which generally stage near shore to spawn – where walleyes gorge on them – for a few weeks in late April and early May are in tight supply this year. The late ice-out and lingering cool water temperatures have delayed the spawning run.

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Aaron Schmitz, Northwoods Bait and Tackle, Bemidji.
File photo / Bemidji Pioneer

“It’s been a battle, it’s been a challenge, it’s been frustrating,” Aaron Schmitz of Northwoods Bait and Tackle in Bemidji said Thursday.

In a normal spring, Schmitz said, the shop typically sells 300 gallons of spottail shiners “in the first week or two” after the Minnesota fishing opener. This year, the shop has sold 75 gallons, which is about 75 gallons more than many bait shops in northern Minnesota.

A gallon of spottails can have upwards of 40 dozen shiners, which are the go-to bait for many Minnesota walleye anglers from mid-May through early June.

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“Knock on wood, I’m very fortunate that I have the connections of all the people that I know in the (bait) trapping world,” Schmitz said. “I can burn through 20 gallons a day pretty darn easy.”

To compensate for the shortage, Northwoods Bait and Tackle is limiting the number of spottails anglers can buy at one time, Schmitz says.

“Last weekend alone, I was $12,000 behind (the 2021 fishing opener) because I didn’t have the quantity to sell,” he said. “I had to restrict it to try and get everybody a little piece of the pie. It’s just a lose-lose deal.”

Other bait shops have had an even tougher time. Nancy Roy of River Rat Bait in Cohasset, Minnesota, said the shop hadn’t been able to get a single spottail shiner as of Tuesday. Anglers who walk in the door looking for spottails turn right around and leave when they hear the shiners aren’t available, she says.

The income from spottail shiners represents “probably 60%” of their business for the year, Roy says – in just a few short weeks.

“There’s so many people’s livelihoods on the line for this – that’s what you rely on,” she said.

Live shiners are prohibited in North Dakota.

Deadline looms

Complicating the shortage is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources requirement that minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in waters designated as infested with zebra mussels must remove their gear by Monday, May 23.

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Hard-sided minnow traps are the most effective gear for trapping spottail shiners, while seines and dip nets that don’t stay in the water overnight are less effective. Most of Minnesota’s traditional spottail lakes are designated as infested waters for zebra mussels, invasive mollusks that cling to hard surfaces, interrupt the food chain and become more active as water temperatures rise.

But with the clock ticking toward May 23, the window for catching spottail shiners is closing fast, said Dave Stefan, a minnow dealer and owner of Remer Trading Post in Remer, Minnesota. Since setting his traps just days before the May 14 Minnesota fishing opener along the north shore of Upper Red Lake – about a 90-mile drive each way from Remer – Stefan says he’s trapped only 2 gallons of spottails.

“I figure I’m out about $30,000 this year,” Stefan said Thursday. “We’ve been driving up twice a day just hoping we’d hit something. All I’m doing is going up there and fixing our (gear) because it’s broken because the weather’s so bad.”

Pilot project site

Designated as an infested water for zebra mussels in March 2019, Upper Red Lake is part of a pilot project the DNR launched this spring on seven lakes to explore best practices for minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in zebra mussel-infested waters.

Trapping minnows in infested waters requires dealers to complete an online training course and follow a strict regimen of procedures in order to receive a license.

Besides Upper Red, lakes in the pilot project are Gull, North Long, Otter Tail, Leech, Minnewaska and Winnibigoshish.

As part of the requirements, dealers who trap minnows in waters infested with zebra mussels must complete an online training course and follow a strict regimen of procedures in order to receive a permit. The May 23 deadline for removing hard-sided traps was put in place to minimize the risk of inadvertently spreading zebra mussels as water temperatures rise toward 55 degrees and the larval zebra mussels, called veligers, hatch and become more active.

Gear from infested waters also has to be lake-specific.

Bait dealers participating in the pilot project asked the DNR to extend the May 23 deadline because the late spring has delayed the shiner run, but the request was denied.

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Sean Sisler, commercial aquatic programs and fish health consultant for the DNR in St. Paul, said the timing of the deadline is unfortunate, given the late spring, but data over the long-term shows the date is appropriate.

“Unfortunately, this is one of those years when the timing doesn’t necessarily line up as well with the spottail shiner run,” Sisler said. “Any given year could be different, but if you’re going to use a date, (May 23) was the date that seemed supported by the data we collected.”

The hope, he said, is that smaller lakes not infested with zebra mussels will help alleviate the spottail shortage because the May 23 deadline doesn’t apply to them. Baitfish harvested everywhere in the state except the Lake Superior watershed no longer have to be tested for viral hemorrhagic septicemia – VHS, for short – a process that can take up to three weeks, Sisler said.

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The Minnesota DNR has declared all of the state except the Lake Superior watershed as risk-free for the fatal fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia, known as VHS, for short.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

The fatal fish disease has been found in Lake Superior but never in Minnesota inland waters, Sisler said, and the DNR’s move to establish VHS-free zones simplifies the process for trapping baitfish in uninfested waters.

“Historically, a lot of this (shiner) harvest has been concentrated on our larger lakes because those are the ones the DNR would test” for VHS, Sisler said. “Now they can harvest from any water bodies that are within those zones. That’s after 10 years of testing, which is why we felt that it was safe to roll out those VHS-free zones.

“We’re hoping, once the shiner runs start happening a little more vigorously, you’ll see (minnow dealers) moving to some of those smaller uninfested waters that aren’t infested with zebra mussels.”

‘Shutting us off’

Before the discovery of larval zebra mussels in Upper Red – adults have yet to be found – minnow dealer Jonny Petrowske of Waskish, Minnesota, said he kept his gear in the water through Memorial Day during late springs to compensate for the delayed shiner run.

This year, Petrowske says his traps will be out of the water before the run even starts. He set his 18 traps Thursday, May 12, and didn’t trap his first spottails until Tuesday, May 17, when he trapped 16 gallons.

With the removal deadline approaching, Petrowske says there’s no way he’ll approach the 800 to 1,200 gallons of spottails he used to take before the AIS regs were implemented.

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Hard-sided traps are the most effective gear for catching spottail shiners during their spring spawning run when they come into shallow water. Trapping the spottails in Upper Red Lake and other waters designated as infested with zebra mussels requires minnow dealers to complete an online training course and follow a strict set of requirements to minimize the risk of spreading the invasive mollusks.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske

“They’re shutting us off,” he said. “We literally had a 10-day season this year. We’re being forced out of the lake before we can harvest, and anglers are getting pretty upset about this.”

Extending the removal deadline even a week would make a big difference this year, Schmitz of Northwoods Bait and Tackle, said.

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Spottail shiners, such as these specimens trapped Thursday, May 19, 2022, on Upper Red Lake, are a prized bait among Minnesota walleye anglers from the mid-May fishing opener through early June.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske

“There’s nobody that cares for these resources and wants to protect the resources more than a minnow trapper, a bait shop owner and the fishermen,” Schmitz said. “I get where someone down in the cities in a cubicle or in an office (at DNR headquarters) has the power to make a decision for the whole state, but they need to hear the people in the field out a little bit more.”

Trapping a site on the south shore of Upper Red near the boundary of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, minnow dealer Chad Benson of Bemidji has been doing better than most.

As of midweek, Benson said he’d trapped 70 gallons of spottails, thanks to a strong run he found in a ditch that flows into the lake. But with more wind and cool weather in the forecast, Benson says he expects the weekend to be a wash.

Cool, windy weather sends the shiners back offshore, he says.

“I figured I could do a couple hundred gallons a year even on a bad year, but this year is looking like under 100,” said Benson, who’s been trapping shiners on Upper Red about five years. “I’m kind of bummed out that I’m going to get cut off when it gets good.

“If we had a few more days, everyone would have all the shiners they want.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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