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Hook was set long ago

Bruce Gilbertson retired as fisheries supervisor for the Spicer office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He's served as supervisor in Spicer for the last 16 years of a 36-year career in fisheries. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SPICER -- As certain as a fish taking the bait, Bruce Gilbertson was destined to make fisheries management his career.

He basically grew up in a fishing boat. His grandfather was a commercial fisherman on Lake Superior. His father was an avid fisherman, and brought his sons along to fish the lakes and streams near their home in Duluth. Bruce was the son who was always tipping over rocks and logs to study the life underneath.

By the time Gilbertson got to college, it no longer mattered that his advisor warned him against a career in fisheries due to a job market with 500 applicants for every posting.

"I was too stubborn," said Gilbertson.

He earned a bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and a graduate degree in fisheries management at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.

He landed temporary positions with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, first doing lake surveys in the Glenwood area and later, creel surveys on Lake Superior.

His first permanent DNR posting brought him to the Windom fisheries office. About four years later, Gilbertson accepted what he thought would be a "stop over" position with the St. Paul fisheries office.

Instead, he stayed put for 16 years and very much enjoyed the challenge of the position. Introducing muskie to many metro-area lakes and providing fishing opportunities in the fast-growing area made for interesting work.

He came to Spicer in 1994 to succeed Al Tews, who was retiring after serving as fisheries chief since the late 1960's.

Gilbertson, 59, is now retired after 36 continuous years with the DNR, 38 years when seasonal employment is included.

The Spicer fisheries office oversees over 40 lakes and many miles of rivers and streams in an area running from Lake Koronis near Paynesville to the shallow prairie lakes north of Marshall.

The staff is also responsible for the New London fish hatchery. It produces 60- to 70-million walleye fry for stocking each year.

Gilbertson said the waters served by the Spicer office are managed to offer both diverse and quality fishing opportunities. Anglers have their choice of pursuing walleye, northern pike, bass, panfish and catfish in these waters, and on-going monitoring shows that the waters hold a good percentage of fish in the "catchable" size.

Northern pike are a case in point: Their numbers are modest compared to some areas of the state, but there are trophies to be caught and overall, anglers will find plenty of others worth the catching or keeping.

There are many challenges to making good fishing possible. It's not unlike farming, said Gilbertson. Like farmers tilling and planting their fields, fisheries workers can stock lakes and work to create opportunities for game fish, but ultimately Mother Nature determines whether those efforts succeed, he noted.

Fisheries managers today know that it takes much more than stocking strategies and regulations to provide good fishing. Land-use practices and development greatly impact water quality and fishing opportunities. Working with other organizations to protect our waters has become a very big part of fisheries management, according to Gilbertson.

He said a regional fisheries manager must always keep an open ear to the wants of anglers, and serve as the liaison between local anglers and the decision makers within the department.

The demands on fishing resources have grown tremendously, and will continue to do so. There's more fishing pressure because anglers are much better at what they do, he explained.

Chalk some of that up to electronics, such as global positioning systems and fish finders. But other changes are equally important. Portable ice fishing houses, improved cold-weather clothing, and power boats that put your grandfather's old row boat to shame all make it possible for anglers to be more effective.

The availability of leaches and crank baits have made walleye vulnerable during times of the year when they used to be largely ignored, he noted.

Gilbertson said he remains optimistic about the future. Most anglers understand the pressures on our fisheries and have responded with selective harvest or catch and release practices.

He's also enjoyed seeing real gains made in water quality. The New London hatchery used to raise catfish for stocking because there was a need for contaminate-free catfish. Now, the Department of Health has lifted many of the advisories once attached to catfish in the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, he noted.

More anglers today enjoy their sport as recreation than was the case years ago, when harvesting fish was often the main goal or measure of success.

Always, Gilbertson said he's enjoyed working alongside others who shared his passion. The staff in Spicer have their professional disagreements, but always have put their differences aside to work together and to have fun, he said. "It's just fun to work with people like that," he said.

Gilbertson said he'll miss the people, but has no worries about keeping busy in retirement. He plans to remain in the area and spend more time enjoying his love for fishing, hunting and falconry, wood carving and volunteering with the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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