WASKISH, Minn. — Jonny Petrowske admits he was worried.
That’s to be expected when you’re a minnow trapper, and about 65% of your annual income depends on catching spottail shiners on Upper Red Lake in the month to six weeks from mid-May through early June when the minnows are available and in demand.
Especially when the gear you use to generate that income is in jeopardy.
That concern was alleviated Thursday afternoon, when Petrowske learned the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will allow the continued use of hard-sided traps to catch spottail shiners on Upper Red and Lake Winnibigoshish, both of which are classified as infested waters for zebra mussels.
The invasive mollusks interrupt the bottom of the food chain and are notorious for clinging to hard surfaces and catching a ride from one body of water to the next.
Hard-sided traps, the thinking goes, are too conducive to zebra mussels hitching a ride. As a result, the DNR traditionally doesn’t allow hard-sided traps to be used to catch shiners or other minnows in waters classified as infested with zebra mussels.
The gear restriction typically is a condition of getting a permit to trap minnows in zebra mussel-infested waters, said Sean Sisler, fisheries program consultant for the DNR in St. Paul.
“In waters infested with zebra mussels, you’re allowed to use seines and dip nets,” Sisler said. “It’s basically gear that you’re actively using and not something that’s going to sit in the water overnight.”
Change in status
On Upper Red, the gear restriction wasn’t an issue until March 2019, when the DNR confirmed larval zebra mussels, called veligers, had been found the previous summer in water samples taken from Red Lake Nation tribal waters.
Because the announcement came so close to the spring shiner trapping season, which typically begins in late April or early May and lasts about six weeks, the DNR granted Upper Red minnow trappers such as Petrowske a one-year waiver on the gear restriction.
Recent DNR action extends that waiver for another year on Upper Red and Winnie, but the gear restrictions remain on other spottail lakes infested with zebra mussels, said Bob Meier, assistant commissioner for the DNR in St. Paul.
Adult zebra mussels haven’t yet been found in either Upper or Lower Red lake.
“We are going to be working to update the permit conditions to allow those traps to be used again this year and then try to re-evaluate our entire protocol about allowing minnow trapping in infested water bodies, especially with spiny water fleas and zebra mussels,” Meier said. “Our main concern is people moving these traps out of Red to other lakes. We will be doing whatever we can to ensure that they will not be doing that.”
The DNR also is working with the Red Lake Nation on developing the trapping protocol, he said.
As part of the permit conditions, Meier said, minnow trappers on Upper Red and Winnie will have to tag their hard-sided traps, perhaps provide GPS coordinates so conservation officers can easily check the traps and pull the traps when the water temperatures reaches 55 degrees for three consecutive days.
Veligers are less of a risk in water that’s less than 55 degrees, he said.
“We need to ensure a reliable, predictable bait source but also we, the department, and I think all people using our waters have, if not an ethical responsibility, we have a statutory responsibility to minimize or eliminate the risk of invasive species transfer,” Meier said. “So we need to figure out how do we have safe bait, how do we have Minnesota-approved bait, how do we ensure we have a bait stream that people can acquire and use that’s not going to put our lakes in jeopardy.”
The DNR also will be working with the bait industry on Lake of the Woods to develop a protocol for the hard-sided holding pens resorts and minnow trappers set off the end of docks to attract emerald shiners, which run up the Rainy River every fall, Meier said.
The DNR confirmed larval zebra mussels in Lake of the Woods in November.
“We’re still going to have to work on that one a little bit,” Meier said. “The immediacy was Red and Winnie just because of the (Minnesota fishing) opener coming up.
“We’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do there as well. Similar invasive species issues. We have to figure out, ‘Can we allow the harvesting of bait and protect the water bodies as well?’ I think we can; we just have to think outside the box. That harvesting of those emerald shiners is different than any other lake, as well, similar to the spottail, so we’re going to tackle that one next.”
Up until Thursday, Petrowske says, he was in limbo over the gear he could use to trap spottail shiners this spring. Because of Upper Red Lake’s sheer size and stained water, which makes spotting the nomadic shiners difficult, seines will catch barely 5% as many spottails as a hard-sided trap, Petrowske said — 2 or 3 gallons vs. the 50 to 60 gallons a few traps can produce in a good haul.
Considering there’s about 44 dozen spottails in a gallon, and Petrowske gets about 3 cents a minnow, that’s a considerable difference in income. Any revenue from seining wouldn’t even cover the cost of the gas he’d burn trying to find spottails to seine, he said.
“I was beyond worried,” said Petrowske, a fourth-generation Waskish resident who traps minnows and also works as a fishing and bear hunting guide. The income he makes from trapping and selling spottail shiners keeps his other ventures afloat, Petrowske says.
“I was actually wondering how I was going to pay the bills keep the lights on,” he said. “It was pretty much the end of my career.
“Worried is an understatement; total panic is more like it.”
Not allowing an effective means of harvesting spottails also would increase the odds of outside suppliers bringing bait from out of state, in turn increasing the risk of introducing other invasive species such as Asian carp, Petrowske said.
Besides, he said, the traps he uses measure 8 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet — much too big to easily move from one lake to another.
“These aren’t something you just toss in the back of your pickup quick and take off to another lake,” he said. “It’s a major operation to move these traps. It takes two to three guys to carry them out into the lake. These are big water traps.”
With the gear worries behind him, Petrowske says he and other minnow trappers on Upper Red and Winnie can get ready for spring. There are about eight minnow trappers on Upper Red who rely on the income from spottail shiners in their business plans, he said.
Shiners aren’t legal baitfish in North Dakota, but die-hard Minnesota walleye anglers won’t even bother fishing if they can’t get spottails in the weeks after opener, Petrowske says.
“From opening day to Memorial Day weekend, you better have spottail shiners or they will burn your (bait shop) down,” he said with a laugh. “There’ll be riots in the parking lots.”
Anglers start calling about spottail shiners weeks before the walleye opener, said Ken Roy, owner of River Rat Bait in Cohasset, Minn. Like Petrowske, Roy says spottail shiners represent about 60% of his income for the whole year in that six-week period.
“The phone rings off the hook all the way from southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois asking for shiners,” Roy said. “It’s a big deal.
“If we couldn’t get shiners anymore, it would basically put us out of business,” he added. “It’s huge, it really is.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.