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In Minnesota's Great Muskie War, the anti-science crowd storms the field

Shawn Kellett and other muskie advocates think the fish's predatory reputation is being used as a scapegoat.

Shawn Kellett and other muskie advocates think the fish's predatory reputation is being used as a scapegoat. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Two years ago, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources planned to stock muskies in a chain of popular fishing spots near Brainerd, some residents revolted.

They worried the muskies would eat the walleye and crappies. They also worried that humans brave enough to venture into the water would get bitten.

Otter Tail County residents rustled up a campaign against the DNR and tried to pass anti-muskie stocking legislation in the spring of 2016. They failed, but succeeded in getting the DNR to halt the stocking of three lakes: Lizzie, Loon, and Franklin.

This year, the anti-muskie crowd martialed the help of Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican, to get a broad bill introduced in the Senate that would have banned muskie stocking. It also called for yanking $100,000 from the game and fish fund to study Minnesotans’ attitudes about stocking. 

The measure was eventually wittled down to just Otter Tail County, then rolled it into a spending bill like so many wads of Play-Doh fused into a single gargantuan ball. But it would fail to get traction. So they'll be back again next year. 

Consider it the latest attempt at a citizen takeover of the DNR, one fueled in complete defiance of science. 

“It’s the dumbest piece of legislation I’ve ever seen,” says Shawn Kellett of the Twin Cities chapter of Muskies Inc.

The DNR has already done countless studies on muskies. The general consensus: introducing them to lakes isn’t harmful to native fish populations. In fact, a 2012 study of 41 lakes even found their presence was sometimes helpful to the walleye.

DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira says muskies are “ecologically benign,” and draw in a growing number of people interested in catching big fish. Kellett thinks the legislation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, all while diverting the DNR’s attention and resources, and pitting muskie and walleye anglers against one another.

“It only serves to undermine the DNR in their attempt to create one of the best muskie fisheries in the world,” Kellett says.

Which is why he and others believe this isn’t about fish -- it’s about control.

“The muskies are just a smokescreen,” says John Underhill, the co-chair of the Minnesota Muskie Alliance. He thinks the legislation is one more attempt by local lake associations to wrest control from the DNR and reduce out-of-town boat traffic from muskie hunters. Though it's still a niche form of fishing, it's been growing fast.

In the end, this is an argument about everyone’s right to enjoy the water, he says. “Just because you own property on a lake doesn’t mean you own the lake.”