DNR fisheries supervisor retiring after decades leading Grand Marais office
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DNR fisheries supervisor retiring after decades leading Grand Marais office

Steve Persons first arrived to the Boundary Waters region in the late 1970s. He knew almost immediately this was the place he wanted to be.

“I went to school for fisheries management at the University of Minnesota. And one day an ad popped up on the bulletin board there for a student worker in Grand Marais. I had no idea what that would involve,” Persons told WTIP. “But it sounded like fun. So I signed up for it. I came up here and worked the summer of 1978 as a student worker, and we got assigned to the string of the most wonderful lakes I’d ever seen. That was every lake along the border. And they had never been surveyed before, so it was an adventure. And my thought when I was done with that year was that if I could ever get back here, I certainly would. And I got a chance to do that when a technician job opened up in 1980.”

More than 40 years later, Persons is set to retire as the area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office in Grand Marais. Persons will officially retire May 6.

That’s about one week ahead of the 2022 Fishing Opener in Minnesota. WTIP had the chance to sit down with Persons to reflect on some of the changes in fisheries management over the past 42 years, including basic things like access for fisheries staff to do their work.

“The rules were a little different back then for us. So we had a canoe and a motor and stashes of gas cans, and all that stuff sat out along all the portage trails and go in for 10 days and work and come out for four days and rest and spent the whole summer doing that.”

Stocking fish is another change in fisheries management over the years.

“Well, you know, in 1980, there was a little bit more of a sort of stock anything anywhere, sort of policy, throw them in and see if they live. And also we had a lot of stocking that we were doing just because we’d always done it. So we were stocking a long list of lake trout lakes, and long list of walleye lakes just because over the years, we’ve learned a lot more about what’s effective for stocking and we’ve been able to really cut back or eliminate a lot of stocking doesn’t mean the fish aren’t there anymore,” he said.

Funding for fisheries management has changed dramatically during the past 42 he’s been with the DNR, specifically when it comes to staffing at the Grand Marais office.

“I would say it affects fisheries and wildlife. But it’s definitely really cut our area operations and fisheries,” he said. “And when I started as an area manager here 30 years ago, I had a crew of 10 or 11 people. And when I leave, there’ll be two.”

Among the many accomplishments that Persons will carry with him when he retires in May, he says stream trout management policy that was built on his watch is a centerpiece the work that’s been done.

“I’m pretty proud of the of the kind of stream trout lake program we’ve been able to maintain. That’s been a lot of work,” he said.

And while Persons points to the success with stocking for many designated trout lakes in the region, he also notes the challenges that come with stocking some local lakes, primarily when it comes to walleye.

“Well, there’s several cases where we were introducing walleye and stocked them for a while, and they just never really thrived. So we stepped away. The initial stocking might have been a mistake, but there’s a couple of cases where stepping away might have been a mistake,” he said. “So we will go back 10 or 15 years later, and, wow, there’s a lot of walleye there. You know, some fish lake up by Greenwood is kind of a case in point we gave up on the stocking because it clearly wasn’t working. And then came back a few years later, and there were really good walleye numbers.”

The fish species asides, when it comes to anglers themselves, Persons says he’s noticed at least one change during the past 40 years, namely that they aren’t catching as many fish.

“Well, you know, it’s a little counterintuitive, but we have some really old creel surveys from the 1950s on these lakes and the lakes were getting fished pretty hard, and the anglers were doing really well. Now, when we look at our new creel surveys, we don’t really see a big increase in fishing pressure, it’s about the same as it was in the 1950s. But the anglers aren’t doing as well,” he said.  “It’s really hard to say why, and we have a lot more bass in the area now. And a lot of people will point their finger at bass and I might point my finger over there once in a while to some lakes. Anglers may not be quite as dedicated or effective, despite all the fancy new equipment that they have available. So that’s been a little bit of a puzzle, it’s probably good that they’re not catching the way they did before, because they would be much harder to keep those populations there. The big change in angling has been the growth of sort of a catch and release philosophy. So for bass, for instance, hardly anybody keeps bass anymore, and we’re seeing those populations respond, we see more bass and bigger bass, that’s a clear result. We see some of that starting to grow with walleye and northern pike now to even lake trout now, more people are releasing those fish. And that will just really help preserve those fisheries.”

When he officially retires in early May, the DNR’s plan is to appoint Assistant Fisheries Supervisor Matt Weberg into an interim role leading the local office.

Meanwhile, once he’s retired, Persons says he plans to stick around Cook County. And while he’s here, he plans to keep chasing some of his favorite fish, including smallmouth bass.

“I find them delicious, but they’re also incredibly fun to catch. And they save an awful lot of fishing trips up here even for people that are you know, here to fish for walleye. It’s those bass they catch that make the trip a lot more fun,” he said.

Persons says he also enjoys chasing brook trout in the fall and occasionally pursues lake trout when he’s on Lake Superior.

As for his final thoughts with WTIP when it came to his 40-plus years leading the local fisheries office, Persons kept it simple.

“Go fishing,” he said.

WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs spoke with Persons about his tenure as the fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Grand Marais. Audio below.