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Fishing Regulations - are they too complex?

I certainly have my biases but I think the idea is largely - what is a nicer word for bullshit?

There are GOOD reasons for regulations to be tailored to particular waterbodies. I will not get into all the science behind regulations - hint, they are at least as much social as they are biological - but if you want to effectively manage a waterbody, tailoring regulations to that waterbody and changing the regulations as conditions warrant is good science. It maybe is not as good from a social and political standpoint.

Brown Trout closeup
For wild trout in Wisconsin, these are the good old days.

There was been a push on the trout-side at least to make the regulations simpler. On the warm-water side of things - particularly with the panfish regulation experiment (for more) - if anything, regulations have been increasingly tailored to specific waterbodies. To be clear, I have no issues with the simplified "stop light" trout regulations (green, yellow, and red) but it seemed mostly to be a solution in search of a problem. I have no qualms in saying that I think the "too complex" argument is mostly a load of crap and I will argue and provide evidence why I think this is the case.

I will layout the case for trout regulations not being too complex in a lawyerly fashion.

Exhibit 1: Look at the map

Buy a trout stamp and they give you the Wisconsin Guide to Trout Fishing Regulations which contains a color-coded map of the regulations and a county-by-county listing for any special regulations streams (the red ones). The color coded map is also available online in a number of places on the Wisconsin DNR website.

Exhibit 2: Look at the signs

Most bridge and parking lot access points have signs telling you exactly what the season is and what the regulations are.

Stile at Bohemian Valley
You literally can not fish this stream without looking at the regulations. Too complex? Hmmmm...

Exhibit 3: Trout regulations are MUCH less complex than warm water regulations

Now go look at the Wisconsin Guide to Hook and Line Fishing Regulations and tell me that trout regulations are or were any more complex. I'll wait...

Stop light regulations for Wisconsin
Wisconsin's current "stop light" regulations for inland trout waters.

Want to fish Walleye and Sauger in Wisconsin? Just like for trout fishing, you need to know where you are (See Exhibits 1 and 2). The harvest limits are different in the ceded territory and the rest of the state. They are yet different on the non-Lake Michigan boundary waters with Michigan, Minnesota boundary waters (including different limits and seasons for different border rivers and even pools on the Mississippi River), the Mississippi River boundary waters with Iowa, tributaries to Lake Michigan and Green Bay have unique regulations, as does Lake Superior. Then some waterbodies have their own special regulations on Walleye. Oh, and many rivers are open to harvest year round - but not all. But trout regulations are too complex...and the "warm-water" regulations do not come with nice color-coded maps.

Exhibit 4: Few streams have gear restrictions

Yes, the early season limits you to artificial lures only as do a number of streams in the state but most of these are streams where you can not keep fish or can not keep fish of particular species, most commonly our native Brook Trout. This is to prevent excess catch and release mortality which is significantly higher compared to artificial lures. So bait is not allowed for a good reason.

For example on Yellowstone cutthroat in Yellowstone National Park, an “un-caged” estimate of hooking mortality was about 0.3% and in the case of wild, uncaged rainbow trout caught with bait and released, the estimate was 16%.

Let the record also reflect the fact that there are no "fly fishing only" waters in Wisconsin. Fly fishing is not mentioned once in the trout regulations, in fact.

Exhibit 5: Regulations do not keep people from fishing (in great numbers)

People do not fish because they do not have time or interest; not because of regulations. From the report, Trout Fishing in Wisconsin: Angler Behavior, Program Assessment and Regulation and Season Preferences,

While our inland trout regulations were cited by some anglers as the reason for not participating in 2011, the trout regulations were significantly less important (less influential) than time constraints.

And from the study, Results of the 2011 Survey of Lapsed Wisconsin Inland Trout Anglers, regulations being too complex was a factor in why anglers stopped buying trout stamps but was fairly far down the list of reasons anglers quit trout fishing.

Anyway you look at the data, you really have to want to see regulations as a very important factor for why people stop trout fishing. It is few people's first or second choice and is well behind things like time constraints and people not being physically able to fish any more (getting old sucks). None of the lapsed angler data are all that surprising. There is a ton of turnover of anglers and those of us that buy a license or trout stamp every year are a minority.

Die-hard anglers are a small group: Out of the pool of roughly 33 million people who fish each year, only four percent of the licensed anglers purchase a fishing license every year (10 out of 10 years). The largest proportion of anglers—49 percent—purchases a license only one out of 10 years. Almost as many—47 percent—purchase a license in more than one year but lapse in between purchases.

Source: American Sportfishing Association report - US Angler Population: Who Comes and Who Goes

In other words, there is a great amount of turnover in who buys licenses from year to year. Nearly half of all anglers buy a license once in a ten year span - which seems pretty incredible to me. Just four percent - one in twenty-five - of us buy a license every year. What is also pretty incredible is that given the amount of turnover that fishing license sales and trout stamp sales in Wisconsin are fairly consistent over time. Most anglers just are not that dedicated to fishing and it is not a large part of their lives as it probably is yours - after all, you have read this far, you are not an average trout angler.

The "stop light" and simplified regulations went into effect in 2016 with no change in trout stamp sales. This is despite nearly 3 in 4 lapsed trout anglers reporting that they would consider buying trout stamps if the regulations were simplified. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic - when people suddenly had more time to fish - trout stamp sales skyrocketed (Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel subscription link). I think it is pretty safe to say that it was never about the regulations.

The majority of anglers said that stream regulations were easy to understand and were generally satisfied with them.

I think we can do away with the idea that trout regulations are any more complex than warm-water regulations and that people are not fishing for trout because of the regulations.

Exhibit 6: Anglers are generally OK with more complex regulations

For example, when asked of walleye anglers, they thought there should be more, not fewer lakes with special regulations tailored to that lake (Bob Holsman's Wisconsin AFS talk: When Wisconsin trout anglers were surveyed, they were split pretty evenly between those that thought harvest regulations were too restrictive and those that desired more restrictive harvest regulations. There is not some massive resistance movement against special regulations.

What Regulations REALLY do.

Really not a much as you might think, at least sometimes. As I wrote about earlier, harvest often does not have as much impact as one might think. Certainly there are times and species for which recreational harvest has very large impacts. Unquestionably, harvest is an important factor in the Walleye decline in Wisconsin and even panfish. Examinations of the effects of trout regulations are pretty inconclusive in no small part because it is difficult to assess what effect regulations have had because of the inherent variability among streams and years and biases within the data (Nate et al. 2010).

Brown Trout densities per mile.
An example of the variability in Brown Trout populations for a single stream.

Regulations are often as much social as they are a biological tool (Google Scholar search returns about 9K results). People have this idea that regulations are there to protect against over harvest. If that was the case, they have generally failed. We have overharvested Walleye and even panfish in Wisconsin.

Regulations set our expectations. I know there are a few 12 inch maximum size limit streams (you can keep 5 trout under 12 inches but none over 12 inches) where a good day is when you catch a few "over" fish. It certainly depends upon the fish species but many times the research shows that to have the desired biological effect regulations would have to be significantly more restrictive than they currently are. This is why the great panfish experiment in Wisconsin has the fish geek in me pretty excited. It will be interesting to see what they find over the 10 year study, how those finding are implemented, and how any changes are received by anglers. One interesting aspect to the panfish experiment is that some regulations restrict harvest in May and June, the months were much of the harvest is concentrated as panfish are spawning and the large ones are most susceptible to harvest. Likewise with trout, much of the harvest is concentrated over opening weekend, Memorial and Labor day weekends, and the 4th of July weekend.

Wisconsin's Trout Regulations

I will argue that the "stop light" regulations have done a pretty good job of threading the needle. They made regulations less complex and, I think, more importantly, they make some improvements biologically. One of the changes to the regulations 2016 was to have fewer regulations on any particular stream.Given what we know about trout and how they move throughout the course of a year, short sections of special regulations are unlikely to have a biological impact so this is a social and biological improvement. Regulations can be a rather coarse instrument. There are places where I question why the hell there are 10 miles of catch and release fishing or how one of my favorite streams went from catch and release to "green" (5 fish, no size limit). But I roll with it.

Drifttless Area stream
With good healthy streams, regulations are of rather little consequence.

Regulations are almost guaranteed to make just about nobody happy. People are not going to come flocking back to trout fishing because the regulations are less complex. As 2020 showed us, people came to or came back to trout fishing when they had the time to do so. Neither of these should surprise anyone - relatively few anglers are all that dedicated to fishing and they come and go from fishing as life allows. The regulations are too complex crowd, in my opinion, is not as upset about the regulations as they are something else. Squeaky wheels get attention.

Grab the Wisconsin Guide to Trout Fishing Regulations - I keep a paper copy in my car, know where you are, and go fishing. It really is not that complex.

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