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Pine lakes slot regulations set to expire next year

The opener, the break, the bite, the class, the limit - the colloquial adages of angling. In 2003, that local lake lexicon added another: The slot.

The slot, in this instance, is a Minnesota DNR experimental, 10-year regulation on Big and Little Pine lakes which mandates all caught walleye measuring 18 or more inches (up to 26 inches) be immediately returned to the lake. One trophy walleye of 26-plus may be kept per license.

For the Pine lakes, those regulations expire March 1, 2013, prompting DNR officials to now seek public input on what to do next.

At a Perham gathering of Pine Lakes Improvement District directors, along with those from both lake associations, DNR fisheries' Howard Fullhart and Arlen Schalekamp discussed fish test findings, pros and cons of the slot and opportunities for public input.

The public will be able to see the Pine lakes data in full on the DNR website by about May 5. Dates for autumn public input meetings will be printed in newspaper legal notices this summer, Schalekamp said.

The primary considerations for the public, according to the DNR, are:

-Should the Pine lakes slot regulation be continued, though likely meaning indefinitely;

-Should the slot be expanded to 17-26 inches, as it is on Little MacDonald and Lida lakes;

-Should the slot be abandoned, returning the Pine lakes to statewide regulations?

The slot took effect May 10, 2003, with these objectives:

-Maintain a walleye population with a DNR gill net average of 15 walleye;

-Increase the 18-inch or longer walleye population to 40 percent of total walleye, and have a 26-inch or larger walleye population of 15 percent of the spring 2013 trap nets;

-Provide an overall walleye catch of at least .2 per hour.

Neither lake has hit the 15 walleye per gill net goal, Fullhart said; however, the 40 percent of the total being 18 inches or larger has been met consistently in the three post-season assessments conducted. Those were done in 2006, 2009 and 2011.

As for 15 percent of the walleye being 26 inches plus, "That goal was probably unattainable," Fullhart said. According to DNR findings, the Pine lakes have seen improvement in catch and quality. It just took almost a decade to prove it, he said.

"When we put a reg together," Fullhart said, "we outline what our objectives are. Looking back, a lot of people questioned, 'Why 10 years?' Over the 10 years, you would have looked at the numbers and said something's not working. But now, those numbers really took off."

As proof, he points to the DNR electrofishing catch rates. And, "yes," electrofishing is exactly what it sounds like. The fish swim away afterward. In 2003 the electrofishing fetched five fish on Big Pine and none on Little Pine; 2004 - Big Pine seven and Little Pine 14. But, Fullhart pointed out; by 2007 those numbers went to 98 on Big Pine and 23 on Little Pine, then 105 and eight, 50 and 17.

Fullhart discussed how fish numbers are directly connected to the class of year of fish, noting that a bumper crop class comes along about every five years. On Big Pine, however, there are three such classes: 2007, 2008 and 2009, he added.

"Historically, Big and Little Pine have not been known for huge class fish," Fullhart said. "They have been more eater fishing. Even if you don't have a large class of fish, the increase of quality of (slot lake) fishing allows you to still go out and catch fish."

"Biologically is it needed?" he asked of the slot regulations. "Maybe not, but the improvement it makes is that you can still go out there and catch a fish or two. You have a better opportunity to go catch fish.

"This past year we didn't even set the last five gill nets. We had seen enough. There were that many fish," he added.

Pine lakes directors in attendance at the recent gathering gave consensus that the slot limit is popular to the majority of anglers and lake users, noting that a minority of slot opponents certainly exists.

Todd Barney, a Big Pine resident and board director, was instrumental in not just bringing the slot concept to the table, but in bringing it to fruition once public data was gathered.

"When the slot went on, we had the bumper crop class of 96," Barney said. "At that time, we thought 10 years might not be enough time, because it might not give you that time you need to have another bumper crop class. But Big Pine has become a great fishing lake," he said.

"We talked about 17 inches back then," Barney said, "but people thought that was going too far. So we chose 18."