A few weeks ago, northern Minnesota legislators were making a strong case for moving the start of fishing this year from May 12 to May 5. They highlighted the unseasonably warm weather, early ice outs on lakes and a fish spawn that was running well ahead of schedule.
But dropping temperatures may cool the effort. On the same morning that many fishing areas were digging out from an April snowfall, state Department of Natural Resources officials were raising concerns about an early opener. Dirk Peterson, DNR fisheries chief, told lawmakers Monday that spawning has slowed significantly.
"The warm weather started some fish moving. But then as weather has cooled off, we've seen some drop-off on the migration of fish to our trap sights," Peterson said. "As we've worked a little over two weeks into the season, we've seen that where we are in our egg takes is approaching a normal year."
Then again, the issue could be just heating up. After the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing, a key House supporter of the early opener claimed the hearing was one-sided and promised to keep fighting for the date change.
People in the hospitality industry have mixed opinions on an early opener. Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Congress of Minnesota Resorts, said some of his organization's members like the idea of earlier fishing. But Carlson said other resort owners have been vocal in their opposition.
"They are concerned about a loss in business — not an increase in business, a loss of business," Carlson said. "They're concerned about the impact on the resource, the fishing resource. And there is also a concern about not being able to get their facilities ready on time."
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The hearing came one day before the full Senate was scheduled to take up a broader game and fish bill.
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said he hopes to head off an attempt to amend that bill with the earlier start date. Ingebrigtsen, of Alexandria, said the testimony helped change his mind.
"I was very open to this thing two weeks ago. I really was. People were excited about it," Ingebrigtsen said. "But the change of weather and folks finally becoming informed about it definitely changed my mind. I'm certainly not in favor of it. I'll be strongly against it on the Senate floor tomorrow, if it comes up. Now, it may not come up."
Ingebrigtsen said he planned to talk to Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who first proposed the start-date change last month. Bakk, DFL-Cook, declined to discuss whether he still plans to offer the amendment.
Other Democrats have already reversed course. State Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said the Legislature simply waited too long to act.
"If we had decided to do this three weeks ago when it was proposed, and it went on and everybody could have made that change to the season, then I think it would have been fine," Saxhaug said. "But we took a couple of weeks, and then we took a week of vacation and it wasn't done. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a moot point anyway."
But even if the Senate rejects the change, the issue doesn't disappear. That's because the House voted two weeks ago for the earlier opener.
State Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, the chief author of the House game and fish bill, supports the change. Hackbarth said he thought the Senate hearing was stacked in favor of opponents.
"At least now they can say we had testimony and we didn't have one person who came forward in favor of it. Well, that's absolutely kind of a farce," Hackbarth said. "I mean, the people out there do want this, and it's not about the resorts so much as it is about the people, the actual fishermen. We just want to give the fishermen and extra added opportunity to go a week early. What's the big deal?"
Hackbarth said he plans to vigorously defend the House position when negotiations begin on the final game and fish bill. He said he expects a battle over the fishing date change if the Senate doesn't approve it.