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If I were the trout czar...

This is the kind of thing I think about during the mindless times when I am avoiding work or just day dreaming. Go ahead and judge, I get it and I am OK with it.

A few caveats first - you are never going to please everyone with anything you do so I fully expect people to not like parts of my reign as Trout Czar of Wisconsin, that's life as a benevolent ruler, I suppose. I promise to be at least as good as our former "Deer Czar", a low bar I know.


A benevolent ruler must have principles, mine - in no particular order except for the first two - are:

  1. When possible, native trout species over non-native trout species.

  2. When possible, wild trout over stocked trout.

  3. Provide a diversity of experiences for anglers.

  4. Recognize the uniqueness of the different regions of the state.

  5. Recognition of the fact that streams and their watersheds exist in an altered landscape and one with a changing climate.

  6. Decisions should be based on the best available science - knowing that it is not always available and in some cases, social decisions sometimes trump biological decisions.

  7. Most of all, understand that you can never make everyone happy - so you probably shouldn't try.

The Trout Landscape


It is rather obvious that there is a great amount of variation in the trout landscape around the state. There are certainly issues that the entire state shares in common - things like the effects of climate change, providing angler access, historic environmental degradation (although the sources generally differ by region), barriers due to dams and road crossings, and other such similarities. Issues in the Driftless are not even blips on the radar for a vast majority of Northern Wisconsin streams and issues in the north are minor issues in the Driftless or Central Sands, if they are issues at all. This is a long-about way to say that one size does not fit all for trout management in Wisconsin - nor probably anywhere. While I know there are some that disagree - I get "the letters" (if you know, you know...). Wisconsin DNR has recognized this and acted, I think, appropriately within the social context that regulations exist. Like me, they are not going to make everyone happy either and I am sure if anyone from the WDNR is reading this, they full well understand they are not pleasing everyone (and are not trying to do so).

To me, the first big division in the trout landscape is that of anadromous vs. resident streams - recognizing that there is some overlap, particular in Lake Superior tributaries. Resident stream trout are generally much different from their lake run brethren. Though again, there is some overlap; such as "coaster" Brook Trout that are, as best we know, genetically the same as residents of that same stream. But being the native salmonid species in those streams, I think they deserve special protections.

WV streambank "structures"
A lesson from grad school - looks can be deceiving. This stream had amazingly abundant and large Brook Trout.

The next landscape levels become less necessarily distinguishable - thus more contentious. One can probably break the Driftless out pretty cleanly and easily (or not). More populated areas of southeastern Wisconsin probably deserve to be separated out, not so much for their uniqueness but for their proximity to people; lots and lots of people. I am certainly not much of a fan of stocking, but stocking has a place. Though southeast Wisconsin does have some remnant Brook Trout populations that should be preserved and not "stocked over". The Central Sands is its own unique landscape and presents unique challenges. For one, there is at least a wild Rainbow Trout fishery or two that deserve special consideration. Admittedly, I know much less about northern Wisconsin trout fisheries and would have a harder time breaking it into unique regions.

Central - sandstone geology - Driftless Area stream
Not your typical Driftless Area stream - but it is in the Driftless Area.

The Wisconsin Conservation Congress hosted their Annual Spring Hearing and there were a couple of questions that were contentious among many trout anglers. The were:

Do you favor changing the statewide general open season for trout and salmon in inland streams, springs, and spring ponds to the first Saturday in April at 5 a.m. through October 15?

and, the other question:

Do you favor having only one statewide county base regulation of 5 trout in total with no minimum size limit?

I honestly can not remember how I voted and in trying to remember, I keep talking myself in and out of both choices. For where I live and the streams I fish most of the time, it doesn't matter but I totally understand why some in other parts of the state were against one or both proposals. Geography matters - even "the Driftless Area" is not a monolith as I found out in great detail last summer.



The Issues...As I See Them


First, let me preface this by saying that these are the good old days of trout fishing in much of Wisconsin and that is largely due to the efforts of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other conservation organizations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service through their work at the state and county level. And it is due to efforts of non-profit conservation organizations - like Trout Unlimited at the state level - and local conservation organizations like "sports clubs" and rod and gun clubs, among others, at the local level. Streams can heal themselves but only if the perturbations causing habitat degradation cease.

A wild, native Brook Trout from a central Driftless stream.

While we have seen many improvements in trout fisheries, we are also seeing some alarming issues. Most notably, Brook Trout have been declining in much of the state. For a much deeper dive into that, I wrote about it in a post about an article by Maitland and Latzka. And this is a topic that I have dedicated a considerable amount of my time to this summer to. But Brook Trout are holding on in some areas and thriving in others. There are a host of reasons for Brook Trout to be doing poorly - climate change, competition and predation from non-native trout, declining habitat, local overharvest, and other factors. In fact, Brook Trout in some places may still be suffering from their local extirpation due to the late 1980's drought, at least that is what many of my northern Wisconsin brethren believe to have caused the loss of Brook Trout in reaches that once held solid populations.

Snorkeling for Brook Trout
Brandon snorkeling for Brook Trout locations in a central Driftless stream.

In my home waters of the Driftless Area, the threats to trout are mostly agriculture-related. And to be sure, at least currently, these issues generally have local effects and are often, I think, related to hatches rather than declines to fish populations. Certainly the fish kills occur too frequently - they should never happen - garner most of the attention. However devastating (and enough to rightfully piss off all anglers), these are localized impacts that, due to the incredible productivity of the Driftless Area, are short lived effects. The effects of neonicotinoids is one we currently don't know enough about (and a post I've not yet had time to finish). I think the issue of groundwater withdrawals that hit other regions - particularly the Central Sands - quite hard will be a greater issue in the Driftless eventually.

Dry Little Plover riverbed
The Little Plover River went dry a number of years ago, this year it was also below the base level set by the WDNR.

Outside of the Driftless, agriculture is certainly an important impact on trout streams but much of northern Wisconsin is relatively unimpaired by agriculture. In far northern Wisconsin, the larger issues are forestry, historic issues (widening of streams to float logs, sediment due to historic forestry, etc.), and fish passage issues. Further south, groundwater withdrawal (read Water Underground for more information) are a significant source of degradation, much as they are in Western states. Less water in the streams means that water temperatures show greater fluctuations and in extreme cases, dewatering of stream reaches. The water withdrawals come not only from agriculture but agriculture is by far the largest and most numerous of the straws.

High capacity well map
Map of high capacity wells in Wisconsin - the Central Sands truly stands out.

My Policy List


This will be an incomplete list, and as Trout Czar, I reserve the right to change and improve this based on comments from my loyal subjects.


Water Withdrawals


Trust me, I understand the politics behind water withdrawals in the state but it also seems to be basic common sense that commercial interests should not be able suck a river dry. This is as strong a tragedy of the commons as you will witness - they suck out the groundwater for financial benefit, we all suffer for their actions. I understand the difficulties and reluctance of politicians to do anything about it - but as czar, I am able to institute binding minimum flow decrees. (Us czars make decrees, not legislation - that is czaring 101.)


Buffers


If we could do one thing to improve trout fishing in Wisconsin, or at least the Driftless, I would institute a buffer policy that was rooted in science. There are federal programs that could be leveraged to assist landowners with costs of putting in buffers that would help protect streams. And putting in a buffer does not mean that land can't be used. In fact, allowing some grazing will keep down some of the unwanted woody encroachment.

Heavily grazed stream
A heavily grazed stream that does little for the cows that graze it our the stream and thel life in it.

I have heard the good and bad with Minnesota's implementation of their buffer law. They probably got it fairly right as I hear / have read stories with neither side being entirely happy. That is the essence of compromise, is it not?


Stocking


I'm not a huge fan but it has a place. I think the Wisconsin DNR is doing it about as well as any state organization in the country and much better than most. There are a few small changes, I might make.

  1. I'd stock more fish in some of the class III waters - park ponds, urban streams, and marginal streams near people. Yeah, I don't love it - it is, after all, not generally a great use of money - but it provides opportunities to anglers. This would be mostly rainbows - they're cheaper to raise, don't mess with wild fish genetics when they get out, and generally dumber that Brown Trout so they are harvested at higher rates.

  2. Any stocking over wild - class I and II - waters would have to be justified. I know a lot of clubs wouldn't like this but a lot of time and effort goes into raising fish that likely contribute next to nothing to the fishery. Sorry for the bluntness but there is a lot of truth to it - we often think we are "doing something" and that is good - it often isn't a good thing. Czars can be blunt.

  3. Most strongly, I do would not stock Brown Trout anywhere that we hope to have native Brook Trout populations. Maybe even a step further, I am not sure we would stock Brown Trout anywhere other than in the Great Lakes.

Regulations


Some anglers have this ridiculously unrealistic idea that regulations are crafted to somehow "magically" save fish populations forever and ever. They, of course, are not. And management and regulations all occur within a social and political framework that is often very difficult to operate within. There are lots of things we know help improve fisheries - such as not allowing shoreline owners to remove large woody debris from lakes - but politically, it is difficult to enact (it's been tried...). Few will argue that agriculture and particularly large-scale agriculture is anything but detrimental to fisheries but it is also the dominant land use in much of the country. My point - fisheries management occurs within a landscape and a social and political network that handcuffs what natural resource agencies can do. What we know to be best for the fishes and their environments are not things that are feasible so we work within the social and environmental landscape we live within.

We, I think, tend to overstate the effects of harvest on trout fisheries. Though, I do think this is a place where regional differences are often quite profound. Differences in productivity across the state mean that some streams can withstand more harvest than others. I saw this first hand this past summer, in the sandstone streams of the northern driftless, we caught a many fewer Brook Trout compared to streams of the dolostone geology to the south. I also think there is some evidence that we harvest a higher percentage of the relatively rare older, larger trout. This crops the top of the size distribution but is a difficult issue to deal with as people are generally unwilling to keep fishes under the slot of maximum size limit.

I don't have very strong opinions on regulations but I do think there are more places where we should encourage more harvest of non-native Brown Trout and less on native Brook Trout. As we continue to deal with the effects of climate change, I think this will be a more significant issue. Harvest can be an issue but generally I think it is rather far down the list of concerns.


Better Science is Needed


While there is a lot we know, we still lack critical pieces of information to better manage trout populations. In particular, there are number of what we call "emerging pollutants" such as PFAS and neonicotinoids that likely have effects on trout but we lack much knowledge of how. And dealing with fisheries management will always be a bit of an adaptive management scenario where we need to learn from what works - and what does not work. We also don't have a great understanding of what effects regulations have - maybe they do more than I think they do?


Wrapping it Up


While a lot of bar stool biologists think otherwise, the Wisconsin DNR does a pretty good job of managing our fisheries. This is even more true given their lack of resources and the lack of growth in those resources. As I think about being the trout czar, I can't help but think about the hopelessness of the seemingly exalted position. There is so much beyond even the reach of a czar. So many of the issues are historic and their legacies date to many decades prior which makes those issues very difficult to deal with. And give the current issues - climate change, the affects of agriculture in a state essentially run by agricultural interests, and growing water quality and quantity issues - the historic issues might be easier to deal with.

I think I'll resign my position as trout czar and move back to an interested angler. As I remember from my history classes, I don't remember things ending very well for the czars and would like to avoid a similar end.

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David Stakston
David Stakston
7 days ago

The picture of the heavily grazed stream was made into a brown trout haven by the Westby Rod and Gun stream ecologist back in the 1950's. Even reading the 1917-1918 Biennial Report of the State Conservation Commission of Wisconsin recommended the planting of Black Willow Trees on the streambank to provide erosion control of the stream, shelter for the brown trout from predators, the leaves, seeds, small and large branches from the black willow trees would provide up to 80% of the nutrients for the macroinvertebrates and aquatic inhabitants in the stream, nesting for the riparian zone birds, host plant for up to 257 different caterpillars of moths and butterflies, cooling of the streambank and stream, the root system narrows…

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Watercress was introduced to our streams from Europe. Earthworms were introduced to our fields from Europe. The brown trout are accustomed to eating scuds in watercress and earthworms from streambanks in Europe. Is this why the brown trout have outgrown the brook trout now in our streams? When is the DNR going to find out about what the food chain is for 5lb brook trout in Wisconsin streams and restore the food chain for 5lb brook trout in Wisconsin streams for all four seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter?

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Everyone should read the 1917-1918 Biennial Report of the State Conservation Commission of Wisconsin (before DNR) on brook trout and brown trout. 107 years ago the knowledge on brook trout and brown trout stream environment was greater than today. Please list all brook trout streams in Wisconsin that have water temperatures lower than 60 degrees on a hot summer day or during a hot summer flood.

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