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Mille Lacs among the issues Brad Parsons will take on as Minnesota’s new fisheries chief

September 8, 2018

Jack Wingate, who retired 11 years ago as Minnesota’s top fisheries research manager, knew what to look for in prospective field biologists

In his view, a job candidate should know how to initiate meaningful studies, finish the work without leaning on others and write a good report.

Brad Parsons, a preacher’s son from Peoria, Ill., excelled in all those areas when Wingate hired him out of college in 1987. In addition, Parsons shined as a communicator.

“I noticed over time he was very good at dealing with people,’’ Wingate said. “He did an exceptionally nice job of sharing research results with fish managers and the public.’’

Those “people person’’ skills inside and outside the agency have carried Parsons to the pinnacle of fish management in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. As the state’s new fisheries chief, he’ll be answering to more than 1 million anglers, hundreds of lake resort communities, fishing clubs, lake associations, county boards, the Legislature, DNR higher-ups and the governor.

He was named to the position this summer, replacing his boss, Don Pereira, who retired after many successes and a few battle scars from walleye management struggles at Mille Lacs.

In an interview last week, Parsons said Mille Lacs remains a “hot button’’ issue — rife with politics and complicated by biological changes and fishing pressures that are adverse to walleyes. Under Pereira, the DNR put walleyes off limits to summer anglers to protect against overharvest.

Parsons said it’s too early to say what’s in store next summer for Mille Lacs walleye anglers. Meanwhile, he expects a return of big crowds this winter if regulations continue to allow possession of one walleye.

For the past four years, Mille Lacs was in Parsons’ domain while he was DNR’s central region fisheries manager. In January, Parsons hired a designated fisheries supervisor for the lake who soon launched a walleye population study. More recently, Parsons said the DNR will create a comprehensive lake management plan for Mille Lacs.

Parsons said the overall plan won’t interfere with protocols tied to co-managing the resource with eight Ojibwe bands. But it will address bass, muskies, perch and walleyes alike — just as the agency has done on other major waters, including Lake Vermilion and Lake of the Woods.

“If we have to limit harvest … what’s the best way to do it?’’ he said.

Parsons also said he will expand the DNR’s informal outreach to people who care about Mille Lacs. Much of the DNR’s information about the lake now flows through the state-appointed Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee. A broader public engagement strategy is what he wants statewide.

“We want to cast a large net to get avid anglers involved,’’ Parsons said. “The one-to-one is where it’s at.’’

In Hutchinson, the local DNR fisheries supervisor, Scott Mackenthun, meets regularly with people who like to fish. Parsons considers the arrangement ideal.

Mackenthun said the participants sit down for a couple of hours at a time, listening to DNR updates on area fish management and airing local concerns, such as unwanted fish predation by cormorants and pelicans. The group has evolved over 20 years and maintains no formal membership list. The discussions are always civil, Mackenthun said.

“We welcome new people with open arms,’’ Mackenthun said. “I consider it a very good thing.’’

Bradford G. Parsons, 55, spent his first years on a small lake in southeastern Wisconsin, where his father was dean and president of an Episcopal seminary called Nashotah House. Later, when Donald Parsons was elected bishop, the family moved to Peoria. Brad, who was nearly 11, took up shore fishing on the Illinois River. He also fished for bass in the area’s vacated strip mines.

His two sisters and his dad weren’t into the outdoors, but he gravitated to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to study water resources and biology. His graduate studies included field research on kokanee salmon in the Green River at the University of Wyoming. He took a job in Minnesota because he wanted to live in the Midwest.

At the DNR, Parsons is known for his walleye work — co-authoring guidelines on how to stock the fish — and for his understanding of crappies, bluegills and trout. He said anglers can expect to hear more about stream fishing in southeastern Minnesota and more about the state’s major rivers — fisheries he has nurtured while working in St. Paul.

He’d like to spread enthusiasm for the state’s diversity of fishing and plans to expand the use of creel surveys — interviews of anglers about the specifics of their effort. Parsons also wants to reduce the number of routine lake surveys that estimate fish abundance in favor of in-depth, targeted lake surveys. Research into declining perch populations will increase, he said, and he plans to uphold the DNR’s stout commitment to public access of state waters.

Parsons said he’s happy that the job of fisheries chief hasn’t been touched, historically, by changes in the governors’ office. But he’s aware that pressures can build in unpredictable ways.

“I don’t want to hazard a guess what my shelf life is going to be,’’ he said.

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