Surveys confirm that Minnesota anglers want to catch big bluegills and other sunfish. Sunfish populations are abundant in most lakes, but larger specimens are usually rare. Local fisheries managers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are working to identify lakes that would benefit from reduced harvest limits.
Many anglers have been asking the DNR for several years to reduce the 20-sunfish bag limit. Some even support a length restriction to further reduce the harvest of larger fish. DNR survey data, though, suggests little support for a statewide bag limit reduction or length restrictions.
In response, the DNR is identifying individual lakes with the right biological characteristics — and local angler support — to benefit from reduced limits.
“Sunfish grow slowly, about an inch per year. We could grow two trophy bucks in the time it takes to grow a trophy bluegill, but for decades we didn’t think twice about keeping big sunfish,” said Dave Weitzel, Grand Rapids area fisheries supervisor. “Now, we’re working locally to identify lakes capable of producing higher quality sunfish.”
Starting this summer, fisheries managers will be meeting with local angling groups to gauge support for reducing the sunfish bag limit on some lakes. Angler input is an important part of the special-regulation process — without support, these regulation changes will likely not be implemented.
Special regulations are specific to individual waters. Through the DNR’s Quality Bluegill Initiative, fisheries managers aim to increase the number of special regulation lakes for sunfish from about 60 to between 200 and 250 lakes statewide by 2023.
“Just like anyone else, we want fishing for sunfish to be enjoyable, and to a lot of folks that means catching a big sunfish,” Weitzel said. “Without a management change, it’s likely sunfish size will continue to decline, largely because of the influence we as anglers exert on their populations.”
On any lake, anglers can voluntarily help protect big sunfish by releasing or limiting their harvest of large sunfish, which are considered about eight inches or bigger. If anglers want to catch big sunfish, they must limit their harvest of them.
Sunfish spawn in large nesting colonies during the spring and early summer. Females select a male, lay eggs and leave the eggs for the male to protect and fan with his fins. These nest-building male sunfish play an important role in repopulation, with the largest sunfish often getting the best spawning sites.
When anglers keep only the largest sunfish, the remaining small males don’t need to compete with larger males to spawn. Once the larger males are gone, smaller males devote less energy to growing. Instead, they devote energy to spawning at smaller sizes.
Spawning sunfish are particularly prone to over-harvest because they are very aggressive while defending a nest. Anglers can help by releasing spawning sunfish, especially large, nesting males. Released fish have a high survival rate and will typically return to their nest to complete the spawning cycle.