Anglers will help decide whether trout rules too complex

Merrill, Wis. – It’s quite helpful to fish with someone who pays
attention.

Chuck Sauer, who lives less than 50 yards from the Prairie
River, is one of those friends. He’s also a former Ohio game
warden, so it’s a good idea to listen when he speaks about the
outdoors. So when a recent April visitor suggested fishing a
section of the river near Sauer’s house, he was quick with an
answer: “It’s closed until May 1.”

Sauer did not add that between March 6 and April 25 this year –
the early trout season – anglers could only use barbless artificial
lures, and all trout caught had to be released. The visitor was
aware of the latter rules. He had forgotten about the closed
section on the Prairie. Which raises a question sometimes asked
about state trout rules: Are they too confusing for the ordinary
angler?

For example, there are four separate classes of trout water in
Wisconsin. A glance at the maps in the 32-page state trout-fishing
pamphlet shows most of the rivers and streams in the state. Each is
color-coded to represent the applicable rule – yellow, green, blue,
and red, with each color specifying size and bag limits (except, of
course, during the early release season).

Recently, there was a movement to eliminate most of the
restrictions. It took the form of a citizen resolution that was
circulated at the 2010 spring hearings conducted by the
Conservation Congress. According to a DNR tally, the resolution was
introduced in 12 counties. It passed in three, tied in one, and was
rejected in eight. It only takes passage in one county for a
resolution to be forwarded to a study committee.

According to Kari Lee-Zimmermann, the Congress liaison for the
DNR, the Congress’ Rules and Regulation Committee will decide which
of the Congress’ working committees (probably the trout committee)
will take up the resolution. It sought to end the early trout
season and replace it with a regular, no-restriction season. It
also proposed to end the color-coded category system and replace it
with a statewide rule calling for a five-fish bag limit on all
inland trout waters.

The proposal was widely opposed by organizations such as Trout
Unlimited. Privately, it was disparaged by many anglers. What also
dismayed many was the approval, in 41 counties, of a separate
proposal seeking to extend the inland trout season through October
(it now ends on the last day in September), when brook and brown
trout are spawning and, therefore, vulnerable; the question was
rejected in 28 counties, and there was a tie vote in three.

In an email response, DNR Fisheries Director Mike Staggs
declined to offer his opinion on the citizen resolution to
eliminate the category system and institute a five-fish bag limit,
saying it was up to the Conservation Congress to decide the
matter.

He said if asked by the Congress, the DNR would review a
resolution “and give them a statement of how we propose to deal
with it.” He also said that the position of the Congress on any
matter, and the results of citizen votes at the annual spring
hearings, were advisory only and not binding on the DNR. He said
further that, because of the way the regulation process works, he
would not expect changes, if any, in trout regulations before 2012,
and then only after a thorough airing in a public forum.

Then there’s Bob Hunt, a former DNR fisheries research biologist
who has written 43 scientific papers and a book on rehabilitating
trout populations. Hunt spent 32 years with the Wisconsin DNR (he
retired in 1992), during which time he led a team of scientists
that devised the current trout stream category system and most of
the other trout regulations now in effect.

Among his chief concerns is protecting the brood stock: “The
primary purpose of minimum size limits is to protect (young trout)
… until they have a chance to spawn at least once,” he said in an
email asking for his opinion. He said a 7-inch limit, for example,
would not protect brown trout since they do not reach spawning size
until they are at least 9 inches long.

He also objected to the five-fish bag limit suggestion which, he
said, “will increase harvest and reduce angling quality by reducing
the number of large trout.” In that regard, he referred to a
biological principle that he said his research had shown to be true
– that, as the number of trout in a particular location decreases,
the percentage of trout caught in that area increases. What that
means, Hunt said, is that a fish population eventually will crash
due to overharvest, and that such a result has been documented in
both salt- and freshwater fisheries.

He also dismissed any concern that the rules are too complex for
young anglers and therefore was driving them away from trout
fishing. He said young people with a cell phone in one pocket and
an iPod in the other would not be intimidated by a color-coded
stream category system.

Meanwhile, back on the Prairie River in mid-April, Sauer and his
forgetful visitor were treated to a bright and beautiful
late-morning start. Of course, bright and beautiful are not the
most ideal conditions for trout fishing, which on that particular
day did nothing to reduce the pleasure of the outing. Sauer, who
had selected a dry fly, went upstream and the visitor, fishing a
nymph, headed downriver.

The reflection of the sun off the rippling water in the runs was
shattered into a thousand pinpoints of light, and the temperature
and flow of the river (Sauer said it was about 50 degrees) was cool
and steady against wader-clad legs.

The new green on the banks revealed the first marsh marigold
stalks pushing up through the leftover debris of winter, and an
even better sign of the season were the first clusters of
trilliums.

With the sights of spring came one of the favorite sounds of the
season, the drumming of a ruffed grouse, which can happen, of
course, at any time of the year and at any time of the day. As it
turned out, Sauer had located the bird’s drumming log – a huge,
partially tipped over cedar – only a few yards from the river
bank.

The evidence was clear; some feathers and a considerable amount
of scat. But no bird, of course.

No matter. The day ended with two small brook trout caught and
returned. It was a day not measured by the size of the bag, but by
the joy of a new season.

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