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BRAINERD, Minn. – For hundreds of bait shops across Minnesota, Urbank Live Bait Co. in Otter Tail County is ground zero for minnows.

So, it wasn't good news last week when owner Marshall Koep said his company's tanks were empty. As one of the state's largest suppliers of fatheads and other minnows, he has joined ranks with competitors in asking the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to help them overcome a worsening shortage of live bait.

"I have a bait shop in Duluth … he's wanted bait for three weeks now and I don't have a minnow to give him,'' said Koep, who sells to about 75 individual bait shops and a network of wholesalers who transport minnows all over Minnesota.

Looking ahead to summer and the traditional fishing opener on May 13, Koep's outlook for the season is gloomy. "Everything is going to be really short this year,'' he said.

The state's minnow shortage isn't new. For a combination of reasons, supply has trended downward since 2017 while demand has grown. At the Capitol, lawmakers started an unsuccessful push in 2017 to allow the importation of minnows from other states — a potential relief valve for the state's 233 licensed bait dealers discredited by the DNR due to the risk of importing invasive fish species and fish disease.

Now bait dealers have grown so exasperated by business conditions, they opened talks last fall with the DNR and recently discussed forming an association to push for breakthroughs. At a minnow resource meeting held March 21 at DNR's regional offices in Brainerd, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt and state fisheries chief Brad Parsons heard enough from the group to make at least one immediate change in regulations.

"There's no question in my mind that there is a shortage,'' Olfelt told the group.

Parsons said later that his own staff has encountered the bait shortage when scrounging for enough fatheads to feed muskies the DNR grows in rearing ponds for stocking purposes.

"Fishing with live bait is such an important part of our culture,'' Parsons said. To the extent the DNR can safely remove barriers to increase the harvest of minnows, it will do so, he said.

Minnow 911

Emergency step No. 1 will unfold in the coming weeks on nine designated lakes that contain an abundance of spottail shiner minnows but also are labeled as infested by invasive zebra mussels. By special permit, minnow trappers this spring can use lake-specific gear to harvest the minnows just before the fishing opener and until June 1. The change to DNR's ongoing pilot program adds seven days of trapping to the short season and opens two additional lakes for harvest, the DNR said.

By design, the program is meant to safeguard supplies of fatheads for early June and the rest of the summer. That's because spottails are always in high demand on the fishing opener and into Memorial Day weekend. When there's a shortage — as there has been in recent years — bait dealers must dip into fathead supplies needed for the remainder of the season.

"We're still in a panic but at least we're getting a few things going,'' said Jonny Petrowske of Bemidji, whose family has been trapping large quantities of spottails from Upper Red Lake since 1936.

Before the pilot project came along, Upper Red was placed on the DNR's infested waters list. Petrowske said he and his competitors on the lake are vital to the supply of live bait during the first couple weeks of the fishing season up north. He strictly sells to wholesalers and a small order for him is 50 gallons, or the equivalent of 2,200 dozen minnows.

"I said, 'If you guys shut off these shiners I want police protection … If I don't have shiners they are gonna riot.' "

Petrowske said last year's pilot project for trapping spottail shiners on zebra mussel-infested lakes ended too soon. Dealers were clamoring for them and the spawning run was just getting started, making the minnows catchable near shore. "I lost five to 10 grand … just had to let them swim away,'' he said.

Minnesota and Maine are the only two states where live minnows for fishing must be 100% homegrown. In Minnesota, practically all of that harvest happens in ponds, lakes, rivers and streams created by Mother Nature. Ponds are the largest source, including natural basins that can be stocked — by permit — with hatchery-produced baby minnows.

Koep and others say the root of the minnow shortage is the continuing loss of harvestable water. Invasive species have put many waters off limits, while shorelines that were once undeveloped are now being purchased by people who introduce competing uses, including the stocking of fish that deplete minnows.

Bait dealers also say that wetland restoration projects undertaken for the benefit of waterfowl hunters intentionally disrupts fathead populations. In addition, the DNR itself has unknowingly moved some of its walleye-rearing operations to ponds used by minnow trappers. Meanwhile, agricultural drainage practices usher more and more water into river systems, shrinking large ponds and drying up others.

At the meeting in Brainerd, minnow trappers also complained about losing access to ponds and lakes inside state and federal wildlife lands that no longer allow motorized vehicles. And in the past few years, recurring droughts, floods and severe winters have disrupted minnow populations by causing winter kill or introducing undesired fish populations.

Moreover, the bait dealers stressed to the DNR that minnows don't reproduce in ponds as heartily as they did 15 to 20 years ago. They are slower to develop when stocked and slower to bounce back after winter kills, they said. The group wondered out loud if farm chemical runoff could be a factor, but no one had evidence.

Drying up

According to preliminary data kept by DNR Fisheries, live bait harvest in Minnesota, including leeches, declined at least 25% from 2017 through 2021. Over a longer time period, from 2001 to 2022, the number of licensed minnow dealers plunged by more than a third from 384 to 233.

"Every year our harvest declines,'' Koep said. "Twenty years ago we were trapping 20,000 gallons (of minnows). Now it's 10,000.''

Tim Englund of North Country Bait, a longtime minnow wholesaler based in Park Rapids, said the increased pressure to find minnows has prompted him to offer individual trappers up to $55 for a gallon of fatheads. That's up from the more typical price of $25 to $30, he said.

"The bait business needs help,'' he said. "A lot of us are saying we might not be there in a year or two.''

Bill Powell, a veteran bait dealer from the Deer River area, said good weather before this year's fishing opener would give trappers enough time to harvest an adequate supply of spottails for the first two weeks of walleye fishing. But there's no end in sight for the shortage of fatheads, the staple of live bait for fishing throughout the summer and fall.

Powell relies on minnow wholesalers for a percentage of the inventory that he sells to 40 different bait stores and resorts. It's not unusual, he said, to receive a third of what he orders from a wholesaler. Worse, when the tanker trucks are dispatched with light loads of minnows, they're forced to add trip charges that increase the cost of the bait. "It trickles down from there,'' Powell said. "It's going to be tough.''

Search for solutions

Parsons said he's actively looking for solutions. Besides the spottail shiner project, the DNR will continue to provide minnow trappers "VHS-free zones'' to trap bait without having to test for viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a deadly fish virus. The DNR does the testing itself.

Another project in the works with blessings from the state is an aquaculture trial to intensively raise golden shiners. The project by University of Minnesota Sea Grant should be completed next year with possible strategies to help offset the estimated deficit of 10,000 gallons of golden shiners annually.

Just last week, Parsons said he was exploring the possibilities of allowing minnow trappers new access to waters inside certain state-owned lands managed by DNR. Part of that idea is to provide exemptions for minnow trappers to use motorized vehicles to reach ponds now out of bounds. One thought, he said, is to issue highly visible back tags for trappers to wear when hauling gear and minnows on those parcels.

Parsons also said he's calling for better communication between bait dealers and the DNR to keep the agency informed of roadblocks or from infringing on prized minnow ponds when it scouts for new fish-rearing ponds.

Said Parsons: "A really big part of getting together with this group is to identify what are some impediments. If we can remove them … we certainly will do that.''