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  • Patrick Durkin

Clear Water, More Perch Spark Conflict on the Mississippi

The caller wasn’t disguising his irritation for airboats, noise pollution, fishing guides, fishing tournaments, underwater cameras, high-tech electronics, and anything else affecting panfish action along the Mississippi River near La Crosse.


In other words, Cashton resident Stanley Von Ruden, 65, is my kind of curmudgeon and river rat. He’s been fishing pools 7 and 8 of the Mississippi from Trempealeau south to Genoa since childhood. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows the river and backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge better than Von Ruden if you like crappies, bluegills, yellow perch and anything else worth filleting and eating.


Although many see gray where Von Ruden sees black and white, he knows what’s driving the recent ice-fishing surge in spots once exclusive to locals. It’s the perch, stupid. Their populations are thriving in the Mississippi’s sloughs, ponds, lakes and ditches; and ice-anglers from hundreds of miles away are driving in to catch perch and take them home for dinner.


“All these airboats and their shuttle service have blown up the past two years,” Von Ruden said. “If they had to get by on just bluegills and crappies they’d never make it. You don’t find big bluegills on Lake Onalaska anymore, but perch are all over, and that’s what they’re after.


“We used to go out into the refuge and it was quiet; you didn’t hear a sound all day,” he continued. “Now it’s airboats back and forth like a bus service, dropping people off and running back for another load; day in and day out. And they’re loud. You hear them coming and going for miles.”


The increases in noise, people and fishing pressure aren’t illegal, of course. These are public lands and waters, and — as good Americans — we never stop squabbling and judging each other over how we use our shared treasures. In general, that means we and our friends do things right, at least tolerably so; while everyone else ruins our day.


There’s no doubt airboats are controversial, whether piloted by bowfishing carp anglers or ice-fishing perch junkies. Mike Howe, director of the North American Ice Fishing Circuit, said that’s one reason the circuit forbids airboats in NAIFC tournaments, including one held Jan. 28 near La Crosse.


“I didn’t want the noise, and airboats give their owners an advantage over those using standard ice-fishing rigs like ATVs, snowmobiles and side-by-sides,” Howe said. “I caught heck from a lot of guys, and I get it. Airboats are amazing, but I don’t think they’re appropriate in a tournament unless everyone is using them.”


The Mississippi, its backwaters and the refuge aren’t without rules and laws, of course. Anglers are subject to bag limits of 15 fish each for bluegills, crappies and perch. But neither the Wisconsin or Minnesota departments of natural resources forbid airboats in publicly owned areas. Neither does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibit them in the sprawling federal refuge, which pretty much covers pools 7 and 8. Further, guides in Wisconsin must be licensed by the DNR — $40 for residents and $100 for nonresidents — and all must pay the F&WS up to $500 annually to take clients into the refuge.


Still, it’s hard to document increases in guided fishing trips. The Wisconsin DNR tracks guide-license sales but not where guides operate, or whether they’re guiding hunters or anglers. Wisconsin also doesn’t set standards or qualifications for guide-license buyers on inland waters. That said, statewide sales of resident guide licenses increased 45% the past decade, rising from 1,465 in 2010 to 2,121 in 2021. Nonresident guides, meanwhile, increased 5-fold statewide the past five years, rising from 28 in 2017 to 143 in 2021.


The DNR, however, can document some aspects of the Mississippi River’s fishery. David Heath, the agency’s fisheries biologist in La Crosse, confirmed that bluegill sizes are down in Lake Onalaska compared to most areas along the river. He said the lake gets hammered year-round by anglers, and winter habitat on its western side doesn’t match the quality of its eastern side. Therefore, fewer Onalaska bluegills survive their first year, especially if they’re born on its western side. At 3 inches in length come fall, they lack the strength to reach better winter habitat 3.5 miles across the lake.


Lake Onalaska also holds an unprecedented population of largemouth bass, which devours small bluegills. “This is one of the few areas in the river where bass outnumber bluegills,” Heath said. “The numbers are upside down. Bass numbers are unbelievable. The habitat favors bass, and catch-and-release is popular among bass fishermen.”


Heath also confirms yellow perch are thriving, and a survey of young-of-the-year fish on Lake Onalaska in 2020 found above-average perch numbers. Heath said perch populations along the Mississippi jumped in recent years as water clarity improved.


“We saw a change in the early 2000s with more water plants like wild rice taking off,” Heath said. “The greater the plant biomass, the clearer the water became because plants trap sediments and reduce turbidity. Perch started taking off, and they continue doing well. They’re plump, healthy fish, and people like catching and eating them.”


Clear water hasn’t helped all fish species, however. Sauger numbers along the Mississippi have declined, as have crappies. Heath said zooplankton is also down, and many backwaters that crappies prefer have filled in as more sediment gets trapped and settles out. “We’ve found areas where we could see down 10 feet, which we’ve never had before,” Heath said.


Some anglers want Minnesota and Wisconsin to lower the panfish bag limits from 15 to 10 per species, but Heath urges patience. He notes those limits dropped to 15 only two years ago. “It takes about 10 years to see the impact of a regulation change, and you need both states to change at the same time,” Heath said.


He hopes everyone will work together to solve the region’s challenges and conflicts, given how wild it remains compared to southern regions of the Mississippi River.


“Things could be far worse,” Heath said. “Wisconsin could have a long, straight, narrow channel surrounded by cornfields. That’s all you see along the Mississippi in some states south of here.”

Yellow perch are thriving along the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin thanks to clearer waters the past 20 years. — Patrick Durkin photo

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