To prepare for the state fishing opener this weekend, thousands of anglers will want to stock up on live bait. But their preparations may not be as fruitful as in previous years.
Bait dealers say regulations designed to prevent the spread of invasive species are making it more difficult for them to collect the bait anglers want.
Bill Powell, who runs Fred's Bait in Deer River just northwest of Grand Rapids and supplies bait to stores and resorts in a 100-mile radius, said state Department of Natural Resources regulations keep some prime bait lakes off limits.
"Right now they're shutting us off before the minnows even come in to make their big spawning run," said Powell, who catches much of his bait during the spring when minnows spawn.
Any lake in the state that's infested with zebra mussels is closed to bait collection between May 16 and Oct. 15. Bait collection on Lake Mille Lacks is closed from May 23 to Oct. 31. Water bodies infested with invasive carp are always closed to bait harvest.
DNR officials say it's important to close infested lakes to bait collection when young zebra mussels called veligers are floating in the water. Veligers are too small to be easily seen and they could be transferred in the water with minnows.
Last year, zebra mussels were discovered in Lake Winnibigoshish, one of the prime minnow lakes in northern Minnesota, Powell said. As a result, the lake was closed to bait dealers just a couple of days after the ice went out.
That left him with a shortage of shiner minnows, a popular live bait for anglers on northern lakes.
"If you get around Mille Lacs area they don't depend on shiners as much as we do," Powell said. "They fish more with leeches and stuff down there. Up here everybody wants shiners to fish with because that's what's in the lake as a natural food source. So most people, if you don't have shiners and they think there's a chance they can get them someplace else, they'll turn right around and walk back out the door."
There's another invasive species hurdle for dealers like Powell who collect shiner minnows.
Dealers who collect certain species of shiners must test the fish for viral hemorrhagic septicemia before they can legally sell them. The DNR is trying to prevent the spread of the deadly disease, now found in Lake Superior.
Shiner minnow species are susceptible to the disease. Powell said once he sends in a fish sample, it takes about a week for test results to clear a lake for bait collection.
"You know, last year there was a pretty good run of minnows on a little lake north of here and a lot of the local fishermen went and [netted] them up themselves for their own use, but I couldn't go there because the lake hadn't been tested," he said.
Commercial bait dealers have to satisfy some regulations that don't cover individual anglers. Dealers must take annual aquatic invasive species training. Powell said it's frustrating to watch anglers collect bait he can't access.
Anglers also need to comply with bait regulation and be aware that harvesting bait in designated infested waters is risky and generally not allowed, said Paula Phelps, an aquaculture and fish health consultant for the DNR.
But while the agency has a list of licensed bait dealers, there's no way to know if individual anglers are following the rules.
"They have to read through the regulation booklet that comes out every year when they get their angling license," Phelps said. "And some people do that and some people don't."
Phelps said the DNR is just starting a review of all invasive species regulations affecting bait collection to see if they are effective, what rules the agency should tighten or relax and if it can simplify any procedures. The agency encourages bait dealers and anglers to offer suggestions on ways the regulations can be improved, she said.