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Join the WTIP News Staff for a program packed with news, music and some humor.  This program covers politics, local news and issues. DayBreak airs 7-8 a.m. on weekdays.

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Points North: Sometimes, One Walleye is Enough

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Distracted by gardens and other tasks, we saved our fishing opener for Sunday evening, when we headed to a small lake just inside the Boundary Waters wilderness. Shallow and connected by a river to a couple of good walleye lakes, it’s a good bet early in the season for a mixed bag of northerns, jumbo perch and an occasional walleye.

It was after five when we arrived at the landing. The day was so warm I instinctively expected to be pestered by black flies as we offloaded the canoe and gear, but bugs were nonexistent. Perhaps they haven’t caught up with the early spring. Crossing the first lake, the surrounding hillsides were blushing green as new aspen and birch leaves emerged. Vikki remarked that in some years, the lakes still have ice on opening weekend. Normally, green-up arrives closer to Memorial Day.

Slipping down the quick currents of a connecting channel, we reached our destination—a long, narrow lake tucked between pine-clad ridges. We didn’t see any canoes on the water, but someone was poking around at the lake’s lone campsite. Typical of this place, we weren’t alone, but had plenty of elbow room.

Because this lake is so shallow, it soon becomes too weedy to fish. But before the weeds come up it provides good fishing. The best way I’ve found to avoid the weeds and catch fish is to troll a spinner rig baited with a nightcrawler—something all fish in the lake like to eat. Even so, by early June you’ll hook a weed salad on every cast. Then I switch to deeper, less weedy lakes.

A brisk breeze was blowing down the length of the lake, raising a chop that slapped against the canoe. We trolled into the wind, parallel to shoreline. We didn’t go far before Vikki hooked the first fish, a pike that was more axe handle than hammer handle. It was big enough to keep without feeling sheepish for doing so, but she told me to throw it back.

“I don’t like northerns,” she said.

She says this every year, but I know better. In the spring, a fresh, boneless pike filet is just as sweet as a walleye. I threw her northern back, but decided to keep the next one. Instead, I boated a chunky perch, which was unquestionably a keeper. The perch was followed by a decent-sized pike that went into the fish basket. Now we had enough fish for dinner.

The wind made fishing somewhat difficult, but not uncomfortable. Even though the sun was sinking in the sky, the air temperature was surprisingly warm. Once again we remarked on the unusual weather, although we weren’t complaining about it.

We heard distant voices and looked up to see to canoes across the lake, as more anglers showed up for the evening bite. Most likely these late arrivals were somewhere nearby. The only other vehicles in the parking lot at the entry point had ATV trailers. Apparently, no opening weekend canoe trippers had entered the wilderness from there.

I thought about how several Cook County business owners had told me the fishing opener no longer was a big deal for them, because the North Shore no longer attracts hordes of anglers. The reasons for this are many, though most notable were the 1978 Boundary Waters wilderness legislation which limited the number of lakes where you can use a fishing boat and motor, the closure of walleye spawning areas once open to fishing, and the changing demographics that led to fewer anglers everywhere.

Another factor is that fishing, especially for walleyes, is usually tough up here in mid May. Here, in the coldest, snowiest corner of Minnesota, frigid water temperatures usually chill the spring walleye bite. The trade-off, acceptable to some of us, is great fishing for lake trout, brookies and splake, all of which are active when the water is cold. Trout are available in dozens of North Shore and Boundary Waters lakes. However, since trout in lakes are only found in this far corner of the state, they attract little attention from most Minnesota anglers.

The wind died down as the evening progressed. The fishing action was steady, if not fast. Vikki lost a jumbo perch beside the canoe, but the only other perch we caught were too small to keep. Perhaps this explains why we had frequent strikes, but had trouble hooking the fish. Almost certainly, the big one got away. Vikki had a violent strike and a few seconds of fight before a rambunctious northern sheared off her spinner rig with its sharp teeth.

Our nearest neighbors on the water were a pair of loons. One of them came over and checked us out, surfacing just a few feet from the canoe. As we fished they called to one another, perhaps discussing their fishing success. We just enjoyed the loon music, a welcome sound in May.

The sun was just above the western tree line when we started a final troll back to the channel. Vikki had a strike and her rod bowed from what appeared to be a sizable fish. When she brought it near the boat, I slid the net beneath a chunky walleye. It was a perfect finale to a fine evening. We reeled in and called it quits.

The fish basket was satisfyingly heavy when I hauled it into the boat. Our mixed bag of pike, perch and a lone walleye wouldn’t be worthy of boasting at a Mille Lacs or Winnie dock, but it was good enough for us. We’d have fresh fish for dinner and extra filets to share with my Mom. Best of all, the 2012 fishing season was off to a great start.

Airdate: May 18, 2012

Photo courtesy of jpellgen via Flickr.



Points North: Getting Dizzy Over AIS Rules

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Sometimes the world spins so fast it just makes you dizzy. Just a couple of weeks ago, my neighbor Floyd stopped by the office and gave me three decals listing the rules for preventing the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS). Floyd had read my recent column about how the state was requiring the decal to be displayed on all watercraft by 2013 under penalty of law. He’d scrounged up a handful of the hard-to-find stickers and was doing his level best to pass them out to every boat owner he knew.

It was an admirable task, but all in vain. Last week, the Minnesota DNR announced the new decals are now obsolete. The State Legislature recently passed more stringent AIS rules. Apparently, forcing everyone who owned anything from a duck boat to a floatplane to paste a sticker on their craft wasn’t enough to “educate” the populace about AIS laws. The new law, which goes into effect in 2015, requires anyone who transports watercraft or water-related equipment with a trailer to complete an online AIS education course. After completing the course, the person will receive a decal that must be placed on their trailer, certifying they have taken the course.

Now, for a little perspective. Minnesota has over 800,000 licensed watercraft. This doesn’t count nonresident boaters who visit or pass through the state, all of whom will be required to get online education and the trailer sticker to prove they “graduated.” Bear in mind the state requires no education to pilot the boat that is resting on the trailer, nor are you required to take a course about the life-saving benefits of wearing a personal flotation device. Apparently carp and clam control are more important to the state of Minnesota than basic public safety.

Some argue new invasive species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels pose such a great environmental risk to Minnesota waters that drastic measures are necessary. Perhaps that’s why the Legislature also doubled the fines for AIS “crimes” such as forgetting to pull the drain plug from your boat, which went from $50 to $100. Boaters visiting public accesses at popular lakes this summer can expect to encounter new boat inspectors who will check to make sure your drain plug is pulled and you’ve picked the weeds from your trailer.

While state officials insist the new laws won’t lead to heavy-handed enforcement, they have said the inspections will give the state an opportunity to check you out for other violations. Hunters and anglers have been down the mandatory inspection path many times before. You may remember the days when conservation officers maintained roadblocks on busy highways to search vehicles and gear for illegal game and fish. Or perhaps you have memories of the era when conservation officers could enter a fish house on a frozen lake without knocking. Then there were the infamous DUI checkpoints of the 1990s.

While corralling everyone and looking for violations may allow officers to write a few more tickets, many law-abiding citizens don’t appreciate being pulled over as a suspect just because they happened to be driving on a public road. A musty old document called the Constitution frowns upon such tactics, too. This time, the invasive species police say the Constitution is on their side. This observer wonders which are more invasive: the carp and clams or the cops who are looking for them.

It is important to remember the DNR and its conservation officers did not make the AIS laws, but have the duty to enforce them. Our legislators, on the other hand, are responsible for the laws they make—and unmake. Why did they pass a law that required printing hundreds of thousands of decals at taxpayer expense, then write a different law and toss out last year’s law—and the decals—before it even took effect? If last year’s law was that bad, why was it passed in the first place? And how do we know this year’s new law is any better?

I never got around to placing the decals on my boat and canoes. The DNR says you can stick them on your boats anyway as a reminder. Frankly, I’d rather forget about a law that is no more. I’ll probably take my time getting around to the new online test as well. After all, it isn’t required until 2015. The way the world spins in St. Paul, that leaves plenty of time for our dizzy Legislature to change the AIS rules yet again.

Airdate: May 11, 2012

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr.



Points North: On a Cold River, A Newcomer Pays His Dues

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Soft rain sprinkles came to an end at bedtime. During the night, a strong wind blew in from the north. A dusting of snow and clear skies greeted us at daybreak. The north wind and below-freezing temperatures put a bite in the air. In other words, it was a not-so-fine day for fishing.

We were going fishing anyway. Rob Drieslein, editor of Minnesota Outdoor News, had come north to learn about steelhead fishing. With a challenging job and four kids, it’s hard for him to get away. The weather was out of our control, but I was determined to show him a good time. At the very least, we’d explore wild rivers and see spectacular scenery. Maybe we’d even catch a steelhead.

High-pressure cold fronts are the bugaboo of anglers. Fishing may be excellent prior to a front’s arrival, but once the wind shifts to the north, it’s as if someone flipped an off switch. Once, a friend and I had a terrific day on an unfamiliar river. We came back the next morning expecting a repeat performance. Instead, we confronted cold front conditions. Fishing the same water where we’d found great success the previous day, we caught just one fish.

While anglers generally agree cold fronts chill the action for a variety of freshwater species, no one seems to know why. Surfing fishing sites on the Web, I found lots of conjecture about why fish don’t bite during cold fronts, but little science to back it up. What does seem to be known is the change in atmospheric pressure--rather than the change in weather--alters fish behavior. When the pressure is high, the weight of the atmosphere pushes down on the water. Anyone who owns a glass barometer has seen how changing pressure makes the water in the barometer go up and down. High pressure apparently affects the swim bladder of fish, which functions similarly to our inner ear. For reasons not completely understood, fish respond by becoming inactive.

Our first stop was at a river where steelhead often can be seen on shallow gravel beds where they spawn. No trout were visible on the gravel and none were biting in nearby deep water. The cold wind blowing down the river valley made fishing there an endurance test. We soon reeled in, hiked back to the truck and moved on.

Since the skies were clear, sunshine would soon overcome the chilly temps. I was hopeful our luck would improve, too. Sometimes, you can stumble upon a wind-sheltered pool or riffle, where the sun creates a warm microclimate and spurs fish activity. Our next stop, though a long walk from the truck, was a river where I had good fishing a few days previous. Surely, the fish would still be there. But could we catch them?

When we reached the river, Rob began fishing a run and I waded upstream toward the next pool. On the way there, I happened upon a couple of trout holding in a sunny, shallow riffle along the bank. Maybe our luck was changing. Usually, catching steelhead you can see is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Make a good presentation with a yarn fly and they nearly always strike. These trout were finicky. I made drift after drift before one struck. I shouted to Rob over the sound of the stream so he knew I had a fish on.

It didn’t take long to land the 20-inch trout. Rob took pictures while I unhooked and released the fish. Then he tried to catch the other trout, which was still on the gravel. Unfortunately, this trout refused to strike. Eventually, it became aware of us and disappeared into deeper water.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll find more of them.”

Famous last words. We continued fishing upstream. I sounded like a tour guide, pointing out the places where I’d hooked fish a few days earlier. While I was certain there were plenty of steelhead in the river, they were neither biting nor lying out on the open gravel bars. After a couple of fruitless hours, I decided it was time to head somewhere else to finish our day. So we hoofed it back to the truck.

Our last stop was another favorite river. (Actually, it’s a rare trout stream that doesn’t rate as a favorite for me.) Here, the upstream spawning migration of steelhead from Lake Superior is blocked by a huge waterfall. I told Rob that a good strategy when fishing on North Shore rivers is to start at the barrier waterfall. Very often you’ll hook a fish or two in the pool beneath the falls.

Drifting my yarn fly through a quiet pocket behind a rock, I found one. It zipped around the pool while I did my best to prevent it from going farther downstream. It surfaced once and flashed bright chrome—the colors of a fresh arrival from the big lake. The trout was strong and feisty, repeatedly running out into the strong currents to get away from me. Soon we were battling down the river, with the trout leading the way. Camera in hand, Rob followed.

I managed to keep the trout from taking refuge beneath a midstream log jam, but I couldn’t keep it out of the current. Every time I was able to bring it near, it made another run. Eventually, we reached a place where overhanging cedars prevented me from going further downstream. Making a stand, I applied a little more pressure to stop the fish. The battle came to an abrupt end. The trout won.

“That’s typical steelhead fishing,” I told Rob.

We continued fishing long enough for Rob to land a small brook trout—the only fish he caught all day. Then it was time to begin the long drive home. Since it had taken years to coax him out on the rivers, I was disappointed, but only a little bit. After all, you have spend some time on the water to earn your first steelhead. Rob just began paying his dues. Hopefully, it won’t be years before he finds time to make his next payment.

Airdate: May 4, 2012

Photo courtesy of Nils Rinaldi via Flickr.


Dave Zentner (Shawn Perich)

Points North: Outdoors, Age Doesn’t Matter

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Sometimes, it’s not what you do so much as the company you keep. This spring, I had very different, but equally enjoyable, outdoor experiences. A 15-year-old young buck tagged along as I trapped nuisance beavers in a neighbor’s pond. I also spent an afternoon on a trout stream with an enthusiastic old fox—age 75.

A neighbor asked me to catch the beavers which were plugging the outlet culvert in his pond, an annual occurrence. I waited to do so until Vikki’s grandson, Joe, came for a visit during his spring break. He’s a young buck who likes to get out in the woods and hadn’t experienced trapping. Tagging along for a few days as I tended beaver traps was a good way to give him a taste of it.

Beavers are surprisingly large rodents which may weigh 30 pounds or more. To catch them, I use large, body-grip traps, which quickly kill the captured beaver. These are powerful traps, which would cause a painful bruise or even fracture a bone if you inadvertently caught yourself.

I showed Joe how to set a body-grip, using a special tongs to squeeze and hold the springs while slipping on the safety catch to prevent an unintended release. Once the two springs were secured with catches, I showed him how to pull open the jaws and set the trigger mechanism. Then I put the trap on the ground, removed the safety catches and handed Joe a long stick.

“Push the trigger wire with the stick,” I said.

He did. The trap went off with a whack. Joe gained immediate respect for the body-grip trap, which was my intent. He was also curious to see if he could set it himself. It wasn’t easy. I coached as he struggled to open the springs with the tongs and hook the safety catches. As he pulled open the jaws, the trap got away from him. The safety catches were in place, but the trap still snapped in midair as Joe demonstrated his newfound respect by quickly stepping away from it.

As we walked around the pond, I showed Joe how to look for places where beavers climb on the bank. I set a trap in one such place, placing the body-grip in the water, as required by law, to minimize the chance of inadvertently catching some other critter. We used part of an aspen sapling, a favorite beaver food, for bait, pushing it into the mud so any beaver attracted to it would swim into the trap.

Aspen trees were harvested near the pond during the winter, so the scent of fresh-cut wood was in the air. The smell was attracting beavers, who could find plenty to eat in the limbs and branches left behind by the logger. We found a well-used trail where the beavers left the pond to go after the downed trees and set a trap there.

When we checked the traps the following day, we found a beaver in the first trap. Joe asked if he could carry the heavy animal back to the truck, which was fine with me. I also set a couple more traps along a nearby creek that’s a travel route for beavers, again showing Joe how to pick the best places.

We caught another beaver, heavier than the first, the following day. This time, Joe wasn’t so quick to volunteer to haul it out, though he did so without grumbling. Back home, we skinned the first beaver. For me, this is a time-consuming task. Joe watched and asked lots of questions. He was surprised to learn the fur mostly goes to foreign markets, such as China and Russia. He learned the amount of work that goes into beaver trapping has little financial reward. I expected to receive about $20 for the pelt.

The next day he watched me skin the second beaver. This time he was less curious, because I nicked a gland with the skinning knife and it oozed yellowish fluid. That triggered Joe’s gag reflex. Unwilling to lose face by going inside, he stared at the sky, walked around and took deep breaths while I continued skinning. By the time he was ready to leave for home, Joe could easily set a body-grip trap, but he probably won’t try skinning a beaver anytime soon. For that matter, he may not become a trapper.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the beaver,” he said.

The day after Joe went home, I received a Saturday morning phone call from the old fox, Dave Zentner of Duluth. He was coming up my way for an afternoon of fishing and wondered if I would join him. We agreed to meet for lunch in Grand Marais.

At lunch, our conversation ran long. Zentner, a nationally recognized conservation leader, is an interesting guy. He’s also one of the most passionate hunters and anglers I know. We traded tales about trout fishing throughout the Lake Superior country. I’ve done a lot of it, but Zentner has done far more. At age 75, he still spends numerous days along the rivers.

Storytelling was a better option than fishing. The midday sun was high and the rivers were abnormally low and clear, making for tough fishing conditions. After lingering over lunch, we headed for the Brule River at Judge C. R. Magney State Park. I fished up one side, while Dave worked the other. Since the Brule was one of the few rivers which wasn’t too low to fish, we shared the river with other anglers.

I caught a sucker. Dave hooked a steelhead just long enough to get a glimpse of the fish. But that was it. As we worked our way upstream, he began wading along a rock wall where the water is normally too deep and swift to traverse. When he reached the best spot, a long riffle downstream from a deep pool, he settled in to fish. I fished the deep pool without success and then crossed the river to meet Dave.

As I was doing so, I saw a sizeable steelhead rocket from the water. My view of Dave was obscured by the rock wall, but I assumed the steelhead was attached to his line. I hustled over to him hoping to get a picture. When I got there, all Dave had was a smile.

“I lost him on the fourth jump,” he explained.

Although we didn’t actually catch a fish, the one that got away capped off a fine afternoon. Afterward, I thought about Joe and Dave. Though one is a young buck and the other an old fox, both outdoorsmen are good company to keep.

Airdate: April 27, 2012



Points North: Will Minnesota Fishing and Boating Stop Being Fun?

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Minnesota boaters are now required to stick a new decal on all watercraft from kayaks to sea planes under penalty of law. Currently, no penalty is in effect, but DNR conservation officers can issue a warning for not displaying it. After Aug. 1, 2014, it will be a petty misdemeanor for boaters who fail to display the decal on their watercraft.

The new sticker has nothing to do with boat registration and licensing. Instead it lists the rules we the people must obey in the state’s newly declared war on aquatic invasive species, such as zebra mussels, Asian carp and Eurasian water milfoil. Pull your boat’s drain plug. Pick the weeds off your trailer. Don’t dump your minnows in the lake.

Remember back in Kindergarten when your Mom attached your mittens to a string inside your jacket so you wouldn’t lose them? Now that you are a grown-up, the Minnesota Legislature, not unlike Mom, wants to make sure you remember to pull the drain plug at the boat landing, because forgetting to do so is now a crime. The decal even includes a second, reminder sticker to put beside your boat winch lest you forget to pull the plug or wear your life preserver.

Gee, thanks Mom.

So far, the DNR has printed 400,000 decals. Minnesotans own over 800,000 watercraft, not counting boats nonresidents bring along when they visit our state. Those nonresidents, also known as tourists, will be required to have the sticker, too. Since many nonresidents are unlikely to know about the decal mandate, an unintended consequence may be many visiting anglers having a negative experience with state conservation officers and boat landing inspectors who can issue them warnings for not displaying a free sticker.

Gee, what a great way to welcome tourists to our state.

Then again, even residents may have trouble tracking down a decal. The DNR issued decals to DNR offices, deputy registrar offices, large sporting goods shops (like Cabela’s or Gander Mountain), and DNR watercraft inspectors and conservation officers. When I called Buck’s Hardware Hank in Grand Marais, the place where hundreds of Cook County anglers—resident and nonresident--buy fishing licenses, I was told they didn’t have the decals, because they don’t sell boat licenses. Later, Buck’s called back to say they requested decals and would have them on hand.

To be fair, the DNR has handed out up to 1,800 decals per day at busy sport shows. The decals will also be mailed with boat license renewals. In fact, the agency has distributed most of the initial printing. A reprint was delayed, however, because of concerns the Legislature may soon change the rules printed on the sticker. I don’t know if that means the existing stickers will then be obsolete.

If all of this sticker stuff strikes you as an example of state government gone amok or as just plain silly, don’t blame the DNR. The agency is not making the rules regarding invasive species, just enforcing them. Simply put, the ideas behind the decal mandate and other aquatic invasive species rules originated in DNR-convened stakeholder meetings a couple of years ago. The stakeholders included anglers, environmentalists, lake association members and more, though more fervent, anti-invasive species viewpoints prevailed. The Legislature used the recommendations from the stakeholders to develop aquatic invasive species regulations.

A few states require decals, which some stakeholders thought was reason enough for Minnesota to the same. The big difference is the other states are out West, where lakes and boaters are few. A much different scenario exists in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Among the stakeholders and some lawmakers, the fervor to do “something” to protect Minnesota waters may have trumped common sense. The threat of ecological havoc caused by zebra mussels and Asian carp is real. It is very likely they will continue to spread into new waters even with preventative measures in place. But those preventive measures have to be practical and enforceable in order to be effective.

I spoke with a northern Minnesota tourism official who is concerned overzealous regulations will create unnecessary confusion among anglers and tourists. My tourism friend strongly believes in protecting our waters, but isn’t sure the current rules are the best way to do so. Consider the new rule requiring anglers to empty the water from their minnow bucket before leaving a lake. You can’t refill the bucket unless you’ve brought water from home. Also, you can’t dump your minnows in the lake or on the ground. So either you return home with a bucket full of dead and soon stinky minnows or you dump them in a trash can at the boat landing.

Now, let’s say you and I decide to paddle and portage across a couple of lakes to fish for walleyes in the Boundary Waters. When we reach the first portage, do we dump the water from the minnows, haul them gasping and wriggling on the bottom of the bucket across the portage and refill it on the other side? What if the two lakes are connected by a stream, as is often the case? Do we still need to empty the water from the bucket? Maybe we should just shoot the rapids with our canoe and avoid portaging the minnows altogether.

No matter what we do, we can’t dump out the minnows, because there are no trash cans in the Boundary Waters. For that matter, there are no trash cans at the vast majority of northern Minnesota public accesses. One can also wonder about the wisdom of replacing the water in your minnow bucket with water from home. In my experience, chlorinated tap water is toxic to minnows.

Heck, maybe we should just forget about fishing and go golfing instead.

My friend also mentioned a small boat rental business that was advised to allow their trailers to dry out for four or five days before being backed into the water on another lake. Since the business provides rentals to several lakes, the owners are now confronted with the real possibility they may need to buy a fleet of trailers—just to continue doing business as usual.

Heck, maybe they should rent golf carts instead.

My friend says questions like these must be answered by state officials so anglers, outfitters, resorters and others in the fishing business know how comply with aquatic invasive species rules. If compliance proves too difficult or impractical, rule changes may be necessary. Otherwise, 2012 may go down as the year fishing and boating stopped being fun in Minnesota.

Airdate: April 20, 2012

Photo courtesy of Sarah Korf via Flickr.



Points North: An Elephant for Easter

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On an Easter Sunday drive, we saw an elephant. Since this was our first Minnesota elephant sighting, we pulled off the highway to get a better look. We learned that the elephant belonged to a small travelling circus, which was giving a show in Carlton the following day. Tiny was her name. We were told Tiny was gentle, weighed 7,000 pounds and was very smart.

She was also devious. Tiny reached her long and dexterous trunk into a trailer of circus gear parked near her cage and probed the contents. Eventually, her owner stuck his head out the door of his nearby RV and yelled, "No Tiny! Knock it off." Tiny obeyed, briefly. Not long after the man went back into the RV she reached into the trailer again.

Pulling back on the highway, we decided seeing an elephant was better than seeing the Easter Bunny. Our Sunday drive was off to an adventurous start. Along for the ride were my mother and 15-year-old Joe, who was coming to visit his grandmother Vikki and me for the week.

We headed for Jay Cooke State Park, where my parents took countless drives when my father was alive. In spring-time, the melt-swollen St. Louis River roars and rages through several miles of rock-studded rapids in the park, drawing sightseers and adventuresome whitewater paddlers. At least, that’s what happens most years. No paddlers were present at the put-in below Thomson Dam, where a modest flow poured over the spillway. The river was as low as I’ve ever seen it in the spring.

High water or not, Jay Cooke is a beautiful park where forests of mature white pine and hardwoods shroud rugged hills. Highway 210 winds along the ridges, offering views of the St. Louis snaking through the valley below. The park is the Duluth area’s best-kept secret, even among locals. Joe, for instance, lives less than 10 miles away and hadn’t been there before.

We stopped at the Swinging Bridge, the site of the park office and a famous landmark. After purchasing a park sticker, we walked down to the bridge and crossed the river. First constructed by Civilian Conservation Corp crews in 1933, Swinging Bridge is one of only two suspension bridges in the state park system. A nearby plaque has a picture from April, 1950, when the river was so high the bridge was washed away. This year, the river is at least 10 feet beneath the bridge.

We weren’t alone. Families, hikers, and photographers were out enjoying the beautiful day. Mom and I remarked how years ago, when we visited Jay Cook with my father, we encountered few people. We were pleased to see the park getting more use.

Back in the car, we continued along Highway 210 reminiscing about Dad. He grew up Duluth’s Gary neighborhood, not far from the park, during the 1930s and 40s. He often talked about fishing for walleyes in the river and sneaking into the park’s backcountry to poach deer. A lot of water has passed beneath the Swinging Bridge since then, but the walleye fishing remains as good as ever and the park now holds an annual deer hunt.

We passed a place where I had a very early memory of Dad. As a young boy, I was interested in trapping, so Dad stopped where a tiny creek crossed the road to show me tracks left by mink or other critters in the fresh snow. As we stood beside the road, a park ranger, no doubt long since retired, pulled up beside us and rolled down his window.

“What are you doing?” he asked in an authoritarian tone of voice.

“We’re looking for tracks,” Dad answered.

“What kind of tracks?’ asked the ranger, his tone suggesting we were up to no good.

“Fish tracks,” Dad answered with a step toward the ranger’s truck. “What does it matter to you?”

When you are a kid, you just don’t expect adults to become confrontational. Never one to mince words, Dad made it clear to the ranger that he was done answering questions. Wisely, the ranger concluded his interrogation and drove away. Dad and an eight-year-old boy whose eyes were now the size of saucers went back to looking for tracks.

Joe thought the fish tracks story was a pretty good tale. He remarked more than once that going for a Sunday drive was pretty cool. We continued on, stopping briefly at Duluth’s Chamber’s Grove Park on the river bank and a couple of out-of-the-way spots we knew thanks to Dad. Joe learned a little about his hometown and a little more about life’s simple pleasures. No one knew better than Dad that you really don’t need anything more than fresh air, clean water and public land to enjoy a day outdoors. It was a good lesson for Joe—and one I hope sticks with him. After all, it’s hard to forget the day when you saw a Minnesota elephant.

Airdate: April 13, 2012

Photo courtesy of MN Photos via Flickr.



Points North: Will We Pay for Access to Public Land?

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The Minnesota Legislature wants to make more money from the state’s School Trust Lands. Separate bills in the House and Senate forward proposals ranging from the creation of a new agency to manage the lands to reforming the existing DNR management in order improve economic returns. The revenue derived from the lands go to the Permanent School Trust.

What the Legislature does or doesn’t do with trust lands is especially important to people who live, recreate or derive a living from the land in northern Minnesota. Currently, the use of this land for activities ranging from hiking to hunting to logging is taken for granted. Some of the current proposals in the Legislature may alter that status quo. For instance, hunters and others may find themselves paying an access fee to use trust lands.

About the only way you can identify trust lands is with a plat book, because they’re not marked with signs or property boundaries. Looking at a map, you’ll see trust lands intermingled within a patchwork of public ownership that includes state forests, county tax-forfeited land and national forests. Seven northern counties contain 100,000 acres or more of trust land, ranging from Cook County with 121,000 acres to Koochiching County with 850,000 acres.

Mineral leases, mostly on the Iron Range, are the primary source of trust land revenue. Although much of the land is forested, logging is less lucrative than mining. The DNR’s administrative costs eat up about 80 percent of timber sale proceeds, so only 20 percent is returned to the Permanent School Trust. Some legislators criticize the DNR’s high costs and propose creating a new bureaucracy to manage trust lands. Others are calling for more accountability from the DNR.

At the March 21 meeting of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council in New Brighton, member Gene Merriam briefed the Council, of which I am a member, on the school trust lands issue. Merriam has a unique perspective on the topic. Currently, he serves on the Permanent School Trust Advisory Committee, but he is also a former Minnesota DNR commissioner and a former state senator.

He began with a history lesson. When Minnesota became a state, the federal government granted two square miles in every township, Sections 16 and 36, for schools. A Permanent School Trust was established in the State Constitution for revenues derived from the lands. Today the trust lands comprise about 2.5 million acres mostly in the forested north. Lands suitable for farming were sold years ago.

Merriam said over the years, the management of trust lands for revenue suffered from benign neglect. When he was in the Legislature, school trust revenue was simply used to reduce the General Fund expenditure for education. No one talked about managing the lands for maximum revenue generation.

About four or five years ago, the Legislature changed the visibility of school trust revenue by putting it on the top of the school aid formula and showing how much was available per pupil across the state. Trust revenues average about $25 million annually, but Merriam said education expenditures total in the billions. Still, when education budgets are being cut, the trust land revenue becomes noticeable and important.

In Minnesota, not all trust lands can produce revenue. They are located in state parks or scientific and natural areas, and even include 86,000 acres within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The state statute guiding trust land management has a goal of producing maximum economic return while following sound conservation principals. In parks and wilderness areas, the underlying conservation principles preclude managing for economic return.

When Merriam was DNR commissioner, he began getting trust lands out of state parks, a task which continues today. In the Boundary Waters, the federal government is currently negotiating a combination purchase and exchange for state and county lands. The state would receive national forest lands where logging and mining may occur as a swap for some of its wilderness holdings. The federal government also will purchase some of the state land, with proceeds going to the Permanent School Trust.

The land-and-cash deal isn’t good enough for some legislators, who are demanding a land-for-land exchange, thus freeing up more land outside of the Boundary Waters for development. Environmentalists, on the other hand, want a complete purchase of state lands to minimize development, especially new mining ventures. Either all-or-nothing position is likely to deep-six the current exchange efforts. Ironically, the Minnesota has tried to make a Boundary Waters land swap since the area was declared wilderness 35 years ago. The current process is the closest the state has come to succeeding.

Merriam said three schools of thought exist regarding future trust land management. The first is to create a new management entity and take the management away from the DNR. The second is to leave management with the DNR, but to create an advisory committee to provide oversight and ensure the DNR manages the lands for maximum economic return. The third option is a recent DNR commissioner’s order which creates a new staff position to ensure the agency maximizes revenue opportunities.

The differences in these schools of thought are apparent in legislation emerging from the House and Senate. House File 2224 calls for creating a new board to manage trust lands and passed overwhelmingly on the House floor. It will also make big changes to the way Minnesotans recreate on public lands by charging fees to access trust lands for hunting, trails, or other public uses. The fees could be tacked on as a surcharge on existing licenses and permits.

Merriam was not up to speed on Senate legislation, so another council member, Wayne Brandt, gave a brief update. The Senate is taking a more deliberate approach and is attempting to deal with specific issues. While Senate File 1889 calls for a new oversight commission, management authority would remain with the DNR. However, the agency would be directed to certify its costs and the Legislative Auditor would provide a benchmark cost comparison with management costs on other public land.

The Senate language also resolves the conflict between sound resource management principles and maximizing economic return. Where there is conflict, the DNR would be directed to resolve it for the long-term revenues. Where the land’s designation prohibits economic return, such as in a state park, the trust would be compensated. The bill sets a 2016 deadline for this process to allow time for the compensation to be included in legislative appropriations.

Conflicts between the House and Senate bills need to be resolved in a conference committee. The resulting legislation must then be signed by the Governor to become law. Whether all of this will occur before the Session ends is uncertain. If not, we can count on the trust land issue continuing to percolate in the Legislature next year.

Airdate: March 30, 2012

Photo courtesy of kurafire on Flickr.



Points North: Let’s Hear It for Hatcheries

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When you catch a fish, do you ever think about its origins? It might have been naturally spawned where you caught it or reared in a hatchery hundreds of miles away. Even if the fish was naturally produced, its species may have been introduced to the watershed—possibly so long ago that its presence now is taken for granted. If so, a hatchery likely played a role in its introduction.

Fish hatcheries often get a bad rap because they have been used to introduce and maintain nonnative fish populations in many waters. Even fish managers may complain that only a small percentage of fish stocked from hatcheries are eventually caught by anglers. Despite such criticisms, hatcheries play a vital role in sustaining the nation’s fisheries—and the communities and economies they support.

The Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Eddies magazine, published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, highlights the role America’s 71 national fish hatcheries play in restoring fisheries, preserving endangered and threatened species, and supporting recreational fishing. A new federal report on the economic value of fisheries conservation finds every dollar spent in the National Fisheries Program has a $28 return on investment. The program’s total economic impact is estimated to be $3.6 billion annually.

The national hatchery system has been around for 141 years and includes facilities across the U.S. from Alaska to Florida. They are used for everything from raising salmon for stocking to preserving some of the few remaining specimens of critically endangered river mussels. Federal hatcheries play a key role in restoring fisheries devastated by overfishing, invasive species and habitat degradation.

Consider the Great Lakes, where overfishing and the invasive sea lamprey had nearly wiped out lake trout by the 1950s. The development of lamprey control methods and the cessation of commercial fishing during the 1960s allowed fish biologists to begin working on lake trout recovery. Using brood stock native to the Great Lakes, lake trout were reared in four national fish hatcheries, including a Lake Superior facility at Iron River, Wisconsin.

By 1995, lake trout recovered to the point that stocking was no longer necessary in most of Lake Superior. Recovery has come more slowly to the other Great Lakes, although biologists are hopeful for Lake Huron, where natural reproduction accounts for about half of the adult lake trout population. The Iron River Hatchery is now devoted to other Great Lakes fish population recovery efforts. Native “coaster” brook trout and lake sturgeon are raised there.

Elsewhere in the country, federal hatcheries played a key role in restoration of striped bass along the Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. In the Southwest, federal hatcheries produce rainbow, brown and brook trout for recreational fisheries, but also house the brood stock for native Apache trout. Restoring the natives to their original habitat in Arizona’s White Mountains is a goal of federal, tribal and state biologists.

From California to Washington State, federal hatcheries pump out millions of Pacific salmon and steelhead to augment greatly diminished natural populations. In northern California’s Sacramento River alone, salmon fishing is valued at over $100 million annually. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, salmon are stocked to provide tribal subsistence fisheries. Nationally, fish populations managed for subsistence are valued at $300 million.

This figure is dwarfed by economic activity resulting from recreational fishing associated with national hatchery stocking programs. Anglers spend 13.5 million days in pursuit of fish stocked by federal hatcheries. All this fishing generates $554 million in retail sales and $903 million of industrial output, as well as 8,000 jobs worth $256 million in wages. It also returns $37 million in federal tax revenues and $35 million in local taxes.

While the National Fish Hatchery System makes substantial contributions to the ongoing health of America’s fisheries, plenty of challenges lie ahead. Fish populations continue to suffer from habitat loss, competition with nonnative species and other environmental factors. Some of these fish species have little recreational or commercial value, but nevertheless are important components of aquatic ecosystems.

In the wake of drought and disastrous wildfires last year, biologists captured rare species to hold in refugia at hatcheries. Most are fish you’ve never heard of, such as the Little Colorado spinedace, the bluehead sucker, the Pecos bluntnose and the Chihuahua chub. In Texas, some of the species rescued from drought aren’t even fish, including the Texas blind salamander, the Comal Springs riffle beetle, Texas wild rice and the Peck’s cave amphipod. Providing refugia for species found only in localized ecosystems is a priority for hatcheries located in the nation’s arid regions.

Room for improvement also exists within the hatchery system. Some environmentalists criticize the stocking of nonnative fish for recreational purposes. Examples are rainbow trout, natives of the Pacific West, and brown trout, native to Europe. Both species are routinely raised and stocked in coldwater streams and lakes across the country. In their defense, rainbows and browns are often stocked in degraded and altered habitat where native species no longer thrive.

In the Pacific Northwest, critics say the federal government relies on hatchery production rather than habitat restoration to bolster salmon runs. Recently, fishing-oriented environmental groups sued the federal government and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe over their plans to build a new hatchery on the Elwha River after the removal of two dams allowed salmon access to 90 miles of historic spawning habitat within Olympic National Park. Environmentalists are concerned the introduction of hatchery fish will greatly hamper the recovery of wild, self-sustaining salmon runs.

The proposed Elwha Hatchery probably is a bad idea, especially if it is intended to simply produce generic salmon for harvest rather than using wild brood stock in an effort to restore wild runs. But it would be unfair to judge the entire National Fish Hatchery System based upon this one facility. Hatcheries are not a panacea for all fish management issues, but it is difficult to imagine how we would sustain our fisheries without them.

Airdate: March 9, 2012

Photo courtesy of the Bridge Family via Flickr.



Points North: Outdoor Banquet Serves Political Indigestion

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The old saw “never turn down a free lunch” is good advice, even if it takes some effort to reach the table. Recently, I took an afternoon off and drove to St. Paul for a free dinner. Minnesota Outdoor News Editor Rob Drieslein invited me to attend the annual legislative banquet for the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

A coalition of conservation, sportsmen’s and shooting organizations, MOHA’s mission is to protect the right to hunt, fish and pursue similar activities. Held while the Legislature is in session, the banquet allows MOHA members to mix with politicians and bureaucrats.

“You can get a feel for what is going on in the Legislature,” said Drieslein when he invited me to attend.

During the social hour, hundreds of dinner guests mingled with politicians, DNR brass and political insiders. When it was time to take a seat, it was hard for three of us to find places at the same table.

After dinner was served, a line-up of speakers took the podium. Among them was Senator Amy Klobuchar, an adept and entertaining speaker who briefed the crowd about her work on national issues. Klobuchar’s efforts in Washington were key to removing Minnesota wolves from the federal Endangered Species List. She quipped that since the governor holds a deer hunt, maybe she should host a Minnesota wolf hunt. She touched briefly on her efforts related to slowing the spread of invasive species and retaining conservation provisions in the impending Farm Bill.

Three state legislators followed Senator Klobuchar. First up was Rep. Kurt Zellers, the speaker of the house, who told stories about accompanying Governor Dayton on the openers for fishing and pheasants. They were good stories, and may have been even better if the governor--who cancelled due to illness--was in attendance. After a few minutes, it was clear Rep. Zellers was sticking to stories, rather than outdoor issues in the Legislature. I nudged Drieslein and whispered, “He isn’t saying anything.”

Smiling, Drieslein responded, “Yeah, but he says nothing very well.”
After Zellers came Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and then Rep. Denny MacNamara, chair of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. When I’ve listened to many previous committee leaders speak in similar settings, they’re usually given quick rundown of the issues their committee may address during the legislative session. This time, that didn’t really happen.

Their short talks were heavy on remarks that made little sense to anyone other than political insiders, and light on substance regarding outdoor issues. From what little they said, I surmised the Legislature might pass hunting, fishing and boating license fee increases. They may also mess around with the management of school trust lands. And quite possibly they will not approve all of the habitat funding recommendations forwarded from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Committee. About the only thing that seems certain is that the Legislature will pass some kind of wolf hunting and trapping season. I asked Drieslein if it was just me, or if what the legislators had to say came up short of his expectations.

“Maybe they don’t have much to offer,” he said.

After dinner, I met others who were unimpressed with what the legislators said—and didn’t say. A friend with long experience in conservation politics summed his feelings about the dinner speakers by saying, “I don’t know why we let politicians get away with this crap.”

Later, driving north on I-35, I contemplated what I’d learned at my free dinner. If the MOHA banquet is an opportunity to take the pulse of the Legislature, then we may not see much accomplished for conservation and the outdoors during this session. If, as Drieslein says, the current politicians don’t have much to offer Minnesotans who use and care about the outdoors, that’s probably a good thing.

Another writer who attended the banquet, Star-Tribune outdoor columnist Dennis Anderson, wrote that those of us who are dismayed with politicians’ poor performance in protecting and conserving our state’s outdoor resources really have only ourselves to blame. Maybe so, but successful conservation mostly benefits the natural resources we hold in common. In politics, public good is often trumped to benefit special interests with deeper pockets.

Still, Minnesota is not Indiana or New Jersey, where what was once the outdoors has been paved, plowed or polluted. Our politicians should be mindful of the fact that we occupy a state brimming with outdoor splendor. Moreover, they should act in ways that demonstrate they share our collective pride in this place. Given their lackluster performance at the MOHA banquet, I’m not so sure that they do.

Airdate: March 2, 2012

Photo courtesy of Mark Dayton via Flickr.



Points North: When A Vegan Goes Hunting

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Tovar Cerulli has AOH, an increasingly common syndrome. The symptoms appeared in his 30s and were somewhat of a surprise. AOH is the acronym for what Cerulli terms Adult Onset Hunting. Prior to developing a case of AOH, Cerulli was a vegan.

Cerulli is among the growing cadre of people who take up hunting as an outgrowth of their desire to eat healthy, locally produced food even though they may have a deep-seated aversion to killing other creatures. The story of his journey from eating no animal products to killing and butchering deer delivers a fresh perspective to the Vermont writer’s new book, The Mindful Carnivore, A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance.

In a recent telephone interview, Cerulli said he enjoyed fishing when he was growing up. As a teen he began to question eating meat due to what he learned about the ethical aspects of animal welfare and the ecological effects of growing corn and other grains solely as livestock feed. At age 20, he caught a trout and while killing it had a profound feeling of doubt and regret.

"Killing the fish felt unnecessary, because I realized I could eat other things," he said.

He became a vegetarian and then a vegan--someone who doesn’t eat any animal products and, by doing so, purports to cause no harm to other creatures. He followed a vegan diet for about a decade, but eventually found himself with low energy and other health concerns. His doctor and his wife suggested adding animal products to his diet might help him feel better.

"So my wife and I took a radical step and started eating yogurt and eggs," Cerulli said.

He started feeling better. Soon he was eating fish and locally raised chickens, too. At the same time, Cerulli developed a growing awareness of the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment and wildlife—land cleared for crop production supports no other life. He pondered how a vegan diet indirectly relies upon animals. Even organic farmers kill deer to minimize crop depredation and use the manure of domestic animals as fertilizer. Such thoughts began to complicate his view of responsible eating.

“Even my garden had consequences,” he said.

To become personally involved in catching and killing his food, Cerulli took up fishing again. Then he started thinking about hunting—quite a leap for someone who once considered eating yogurt as dietary radicalism. But he enjoyed spending time in the woods and thought killing a deer would provide him with free-range meat while causing less suffering for the animal than factory farming and leaving a minimal ecological footprint. At the very least, hunting would deepen his connection to the landscape.

Once he decided to try hunting, he had to learn how to do it. He corresponded with an uncle living on Cape Cod who was a hunter. Taking the state’s hunter safety class, he discovered most of his classmates were 12-year-olds. He read books about hunting and acquired the necessary gear. His first quarry was a snowshoe hare and he decided to wait another year before attempting deer hunting.

Inexperienced and short on confidence, he began deer hunting alone. Cerulli enjoyed the sights and sounds of being in the woods, but wasn’t successful. Once he happened upon where another hunter had field-dressed a deer and discarded a pair of plastic gloves used in the process, which he found offensive. Late in the season he hunted with his uncle on Cape Cod. and helped process a small deer his uncle killed.

Cerulli hunted for four years before he had success and then he wasn’t sure it was worth the wait. Taking the life of an deer triggered unsuspected emotions.

“I was mostly in shock. It took so long for me to succeed in the hunt and suddenly this animal was dead,” he said.

Most hunters say they feel a mixture of elation and sadness when they make a kill, but Cerulli just felt grief and confusion. He was unsure he wanted to continue hunting until he butchered the deer. Something about the process of taking apart the animal and converting it to food brought him to a place where he wanted to hunt again. Since then, he’s killed several deer and, although it remains an emotional experience, he no longer feels what he calls “the intensity of the initial storm.” Instead, for a day or two afterward, he becomes deeply introspective and reflects upon the reality of killing to live.

As a former vegan, this is perhaps the most radical step he’s taken. Once, he believed, as do many vegans, that unintentional harm to other creatures, such as eliminating habitat to create a plowed field, was a better option. Now he thinks otherwise.

“I’ve found to my surprise I prefer the occasional intended killing,” he said. “I face it, deal with it and make my peace with it.”

The biggest lesson Cerulli has derived from becoming a hunter is the moral ambiguity of human existence. He said a basic dilemma of being human is the contrast between a desire to be moral and compassionate and the harm to other creatures or the environment resulting from human actions. In the modern world, we are mostly unaware of the ecological or moral implications of the food and other products we purchase in a store, because we do not see the factory farm or the strip mine where it originated.

“Much of my perspective is rooted in the idea that humans are part of Nature and ecological systems, “ he said. “We are participants, rather than overlords.”

Cerulli intends to remain a hunter and continue thinking about hunting. Having returned to graduate school, his master’s thesis explored the concept of adult onset hunting. Now working toward a PhD, he is examining hunting and its relationship to place and land. He isn’t sure where this academic path may lead, although he expects to become involved with educational efforts and research associated with hunting and, more broadly, the relationship between the food we eat and the landscape. For a yogurt-eating radical, he’s come a long way.

Airdate: February 24, 2012

Photo courtesy of Malevda on Flickr.