By Doug Leier

Many fishermen only persue panfish through the ice

One of the more enjoyable aspect of outdoors communication is the debate that sometimes surrounds current issues.

Should spinning wing decoys be limited?

Should deer hunters be allowed to hunt after sunset?

How do you define baiting, and should it be legal?

What about issues such as roadless areas on public land, or restricting all-terrain vehicle use in some areas?

I relish looking at both sides of issues. For many there is not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all answer. The key is to spend time evaluating facts, figures and opinions and trying to understand where each side is coming from.

A topic that is generating some interest around North Dakota is the proposed new daily and possession limits for panfish such as perch, crappie and bluegill. Prior to 2000, North Dakota had no daily limit for these species. For two years the daily limit was 50 with 250 in possession, and since 2002 the daily limit has been 35 with 175 in possession.

At this time, as the 2006-2008 fishing proclamation is being finalized, Game and Fish is looking at further reducing panfish limits statewide, and establishing a couple of lake-specific regulations as an experiment.

As the agency responsible for managing fish and wildlife for the state of North Dakota, Game and Fish tries to keep regulations as simple as possible without putting resources at risk. Sometimes it's a fine line to walk but this philosophy usually work to balance biological efficiency with keeping regulations less cumbersome.

One aspect is determining the biological goal. Will reducing the limit save, maintain or enhance the fish population? If the specific body of water supports little or no natural reproduction and relies solely on stocking, limits are more social than biological. In that respect, limits may help spread out opportunity for other anglers to enjoy a limited resource.

Even in lakes with adequate natural reproduction, it's difficult to argue that catching fish won't reduce a fish population. The challenge is establishing a limit that keeps people interested in fishing but doesn't promote so much harvest that the quality of the fishery declines over time.

However, the equation for a sustainable fishery is not always as simple as appropriate limits. If you've witnessed the effects winter kills, freeze outs and even summer kills you can understand the debate. Sometimes, fish populations decline regardless of fishing pressure. Some people believe that liberal limits ensure that, especially in shallow prairie lakes, fish populations are used before Mother Nature inevitably takes them away. However, no one has a crystal ball and can predict when conditions will return to the so-called 'normal'; in the meantime, the lake in question can function no different then the traditional lakes.

Which brings up the prospect of lake-specific limits. Just a few lakes in the state have a minimum size limit for certain fish species, and harvest limits are pretty much consistent except for a higher northern pike daily limit in three counties around Devils Lake area, and a lower catfish limit on the Red River.

There's not body of water in the state from which you can keep more than five walleyes. Nor is there a lake where the daily limit is less than five. Some lakes have live bait restrictions. For the most part when arriving at a boat ramp or dock at one of North Dakota's fishing waters, if you read the fishing guide, you'll be set.

For many, dinner for two is their limit

Philosophically this endears itself to recruitment and retention of anglers. And there's research to prove it. People generally want regulations that are consistent and easy to understand.

But there's also place for special regulations when they will likely benefit the resource, or benefit anglers without hurting the resource. That's the case with three lakes that will have an experimental panfish limit even lower than the proposed 20 per day. Is that guaranteed to maintain, improve or sustain a fishery?

Not necessarily, but the likelihood of positive results is high enough to warrant a limited experiment. If successful, more North Dakotans may have a chance to catch bigger fish over a longer period of time. As with any experiment, you're never quite certain what the results will be until you try.

In most cases, the best fishing is a result of good aquatic habitat which promotes a strong fish population and part of the equation are responsible regulations and angler ethics.