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Fatheads vs. waterfowl

8/17/2005

It's said in bait shops a thousand times a day: "I'll have a scoop of fatheads."

A question: When we buy minnows — and Minnesota is a huge supplier of fish bait — are we subsidizing the destruction of duck habitat? Are fatheads competing with duck broods for food?

Judging by the uncrowded condition of Minnesota's duck skies in recent years, the duck broods are disappearing because of … well, something. Count me in as one who has long wondered if my thirst for fatheads had helped wreck the quality of wetlands for Minnesota ducks.

Toss a duck decoy into a North Dakota wetland and it would be covered on the bottom by freshwater shrimp (amphipods) that ducks crave. Toss the same decoy into a Minnesota wetland and … nothing. Did the bait business boom blow out ducks?

Such a question was on my mind a few weeks ago when I spent a day with Mike Lint, of the Minnesota Fish and Bait Farmers. Lint, of New London, Minn., raises suckers and walleyes in his hatchery and ponds. And he traps untold dozens of fatheads from natural wetlands.

"So are the fatheads eating all the shrimp?" I asked.

Lint lead me to a tank of fatheads that was crowded with freshwater shrimp.

"Here's your answer," he said. "The shrimp are so plentiful this year where we trap fatheads that they are plugging the funnels into the traps."

Lint, who has trapped fatheads for two decades, said the popular baitfish occurs naturally. If fatheads were wrecking duck marshes, it would have happened a long time ago, he said.

The state's fathead population is historically low because of competition with other invasive fish, Lint added.

Waterfowl research by the Northern Prairie Waterfowl Research Station has documented that fatheads in natural wetlands can have a "major influence" on reducing zooplankton and other invertebrates, which are of food value to ducks. However, the fish versus ducks issue is more complex than a simple cause and effect.

Nicole Hansel-Welch, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shallow-lakes specialist, said she wouldn't advocate introducing fatheads into a fishless wetland.

"But I think the fathead is an easy target," she said. "Other factors impacting waterfowl and water quality in wetlands are greater than fatheads."

Lint said he is convinced that bullheads, green sunfish and carp are the greatest destroyers of duck habitat, short of outright wetland drainage. He said the state's massive network of drainage ditches has allowed bullheads and carp, especially, to invade countless wetlands and waterways.

With Minnesota in the duck doldrums, do we still ask for a scoop? Is there more we need to know about fatheads and ducks?

At the moment, the answers for anglers seem to be yes and yes.


Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling 888-755-3155.

July through September, Ron Schara's short feature "The Outdoor Beat" airs at 7:55 a.m. ET Sundays on ESPN2. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.