ALL IS NOT WELL IN RIVER CITY
I am fortunate to be one of the nearly 50 citizens advising the DNR on matters related to the state’s first Inland Trout Management Plan. In this capacity, I decided to visit with dedicated trout anglers and professionals from all over the state : Driftless Region, Central Sands, Blue Hills, Northern Highlands, Namekagan River area. We need to pay attention to what they said. In a nutshell, trout fishing is poised to go backwards without change.
What convinced these passionate anglers that changes are needed? Few anglers fishing after mid-June in most areas. Fewer young people trout fishing. Fewer families making trout fishing a generational tradition. Total trout stamp-related revenues echo these observations as revenues have held constant around $1.5 million since the late 1990s while the general population has gone up 10%. News Flash: holding constant is not winning!
None of the above findings are unexpected, but it is the long-term impact of these trends that worries them. Wisconsin has a nationally-recognized cold water fishery that can be second to none, but it cannot function on air and past accolades. You need money to run a high quality trout program . . .and that money is running out as sales lag and each years’ inflationary pressures and cuts mean fewer dollars for work on the ground, (e.g. easement expansion, stream rehabilitation, creel counts, shocking surveys).
Make no mistake, continuing legislative interference in revenue generation has placed the entire cold water fishery program on hold where it will be unable to meet upcoming challenges on invasive species, higher water temps, greater promotion, and easement maintenance.
Everyone I talked with is concerned about the lack of youth and families participating in trout fishing. This trend must be turned around. One of the best ideas to come out of my interviews is to manage numerous streams in every region on a quality, access basis through early season.
Youth and young families must have positive experiences in catching and keeping sufficient numbers of fish. If they don’t catch enough fish, they aren’t going to stick with the sport. It’s that simple! But, to implement this model, sufficient dollars and resources must be made available in every region for additional easements, stream rehabilitation, nearby camping, stocking, and even bag limit modification. An Inland Trout Plan without money and resources is a hollow exercise.
Let’s go one step farther. What good is it to do all of this work without proper promotion and education? I met a sports shop owner in Mercer who decided to give all of his fly fishing equipment away to the nearby high school to lure more youth into the sport. An irony here is that as cold water fishing is struggling in Wisconsin, warm water fishing for bass, walleye, and musky is doing pretty well.
Fishing together as a family is easier on a boat than on a 4 foot-wide stream. Athletic associations in several states, including Illinois, and Kentucky have adopted bass fishing as a sanctioned sport in partnership with professional fishing organizations. Could Trout Unlimited step up its local work with high school youth? Could trout fishing become a sanctioned sport? The DNR must prioritize education and promotion for increasing angler participation.
There is even a more basic way to think about the trout fishing experience. Except for the most passionate of anglers, only a modest number are going to slug their way through mosquito/bug-infested brambles, tag alder, reed canary grass, and nettles from mid-June on. The DNR must realize that one of the best ways to improve interest in and access to quality trout fishing for everyone is to open the season earlier, say April 1st or 10th, on most streams. Yes, more fish will be taken, but we need positive angler experiences. Giving youth and families nearly two full months of more accessible fishing could provide large dividends for the sport and its future.
My conversations led me to conclude that each region has its own needs. For example, as cattle pasturing has decreased in the Driftless Region, easement quality is decreasing with it. In the Northern Highlands, increasing thermal fluxes on long-run rivers are putting pressure on trout populations. The Inland Trout Plan must reflect what is happening on the ground if it is going to be useful and not become just another report on the shelf. Moreover, this is NOT the time to be shy about asking for more resources or seeking an increase in license or stamp fees. Not a person I talked to would blink an eye if a trout stamp went from $10 to $15, so long as the added money was kept in the cold water fishery program! There cannot be a fear of confronting the legislature with clear and precise needs by region or watershed. That is the only credible way an “ask” can be made.
The draft Inland Trout Plan will come out soon and I encourage all persons and professionals who care about the future of Wisconsin trout fishing to get involved and make comments over the coming months. There is “trouble in River City”, but the only way to overcome it is to speak up and be counted.