Fishing: Look back to look forward

My, where did the summer fishing season go?

The air of September has arrived. It heralds an autumn transformation when many of us swap fishing rods for bows and arrows and duck boats for walleye boats, and we begin a transformation from angler to nimrod.

Fall fishing also beckons as the days grow short and the nights cool. Fall fishing in Minnesota is an awesome time.

But when the grouse trails turn golden, when ringnecks cackle in October, who among us can leave the dog behind any longer?

So, it's time for one last cast — and one last look in my tackle box of fishing stories still waiting to be told.

Much is said and written about the current state of walleye fishing in Minnesota. And that's as it should be. But looking back also has value.

A few weeks ago I stumbled on a list of walleye lakes that were candidates for opening day more than 20 years ago.

Former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish biologist Dick Sternberg assembled the list as he and I and others regularly plotted potential walleye hotspots to visit on opening day. Sternberg dutifully recorded the latest in DNR walleye test netting results, water clarity and so forth.

I wondered, as I found the old list, how have things changed in the more than two decades gone by? In a word, interesting.

Of the 21 lakes on our hit list, I found the water clarity had actually increased on 14 lakes and decreased in the rest.

While water clarity is only one measure of a lake's health, the improvement hinted that perhaps our pollution rules, our lake associations and the DNR are making progress in the battle to maintain clean water.

But what about the walleye counts? Interesting, again.

Of the 21 lakes, five showed a higher walleye count than the survey showed two decades ago. Eight lakes had walleye counts that were largely unchanged over the years. Sadly, eight other lakes showed walleye declines that are best described as population collapses based on the most current DNR walleye surveys.

While the historic walleye comparisons are far from scientific, if you think the walleye fishing isn't what it used to be, you could be right. And if you think it's better, you could be right, too.

On the subject of future fishing, Harvey Nelson dropped me a note awhile back about the value of lake residents and anglers uniting to maintain the health of our fishing water.

Specifically, Nelson noted the achievements of the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation. This volunteer citizen group has worked to protect shorelines in the Leech Lake Watershed, which includes the Woman Lake chain.

It has acted to protect spawning bays and valued wetland habitats and to halt intrusive commercial developments, Nelson said.

Frankly, our lakes need more attention by cabin dwellers, local residents, state officials and others.

We need more restrictions on shoreline development.

And we need lakeshore owners who realize when they fertilize, when they remove aquatic vegetation, when they landscape to the water line, they together are destroying the very lake they covet.

Finally, I want to pass on a fishing wish from Mike Urban, an angler from Fairmont, Minn. Mike is confined to a wheelchair. While his hometown has five lakes, there is only one fishing pier accessible by wheelchair. And that one, Mike said, is located over a carp and bullhead hotspot.

Mike said he's looked for a list of fishing piers in the state that are wheelchair accessible and where better fishing might be had. But he hasn't found one. He checked with the DNR and no such list exists.

Before next opening day, I think Mike and other disadvantaged anglers deserve the list.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling (888) 755-3155.

July through September 2004, Ron Schara's short feature, "Backroads with Ron & Raven," airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.