Crowding is relative. My idea of stream crowding changes depending upon where I am, what day of the week it is, what I am fishing for, and a host of other factors. I run into a few other anglers on a Tuesday and the stream is too crowded; on a Saturday, I do not think twice about it. Seeing a few boats on "big name" western trout rivers is to be expected most places; the same on a smallie trip on a Northern Wisconsin river seems a lot different. We fished Lake Mendota off "Four Doors" for Yellow Perch "back in the day" and if it wasn't crowded, it was because the fish had moved on.
As I had previously written about in a post on human dimensions of fisheries, there is a science to studying anglers behaviors, choices, and their satisfaction that exists to better understand anglers. Maybe altruistically, this is to improve the experience for anglers - to give the people what they want. Less altruistically, happy anglers buy licenses again next year. Funding for state fish and game agencies comes from two main sources, 1) license sales and 2) each state's share of federal excise taxes - which is based on the state's population and the number of licenses they sell. You have likely seen the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration signs at boat ramps and other access points. Funding matters for state resource agencies for many reasons.
My Experiences with Crowding
Before digging into the science behind stream crowding, I thought I would start with my experiences. After fishing some of Pennsylvania's well known streams; I chuckle a bit at what we think of as crowding on Wisconsin trout streams. It is not to say that there are not other anglers out there that are altering our experiences - which is really the reason we care about crowding - but crowding is really different in Wisconsin than many other places.
When I moved East for graduate school, I was eager to fish some of Pennsylvania's famed "limestoners" - Pennsylvanian for spring creeks. So early on, I fished Spring Creek at Fisherman's Paradise, the George Harvey section of Spruce Creek, Big Fishing Creek's "Narrows", "the ditch" at Big Spring Creek. Later we fished Penns Creek during the orange sulphur hatch, Yellow Breeches during the Ephoron hatch, Letort Spring Run and Falling Springs in the Cumberland Valley, and the list goes on. The history is spectacular, some of the most historic and important waters in U.S. fly fishing history. And it was all very interesting - some streams lived up to their reputation, others not so much. But what they all had in common - other than the Letort because of its reputation for difficulty - was a lot of anglers.
When I say a lot of anglers, I mean a number of anglers that would blow your mind if you were to experience that on a Wisconsin trout stream. Well, maybe the tributaries during the salmon run would rival it. One of the first times fishing one of the famed Pennsylvania trout streams, I said to a local that I could not believe that the fish kept eating with all these anglers around. His response was essentially, if they stopped feeding every time anglers were around, they would starve. And he was right; on those "big name" streams, there are always people around. You had to get a good drift and present your fly very well but if you did that, you would catch fish even when they knew you were there.
To compare that to - as I write this - a recent morning (July 27th) where I fished a less popular reach on a very popular Coulee stream. I spooked hundreds - maybe thousands - of fish...and caught a few. I felt accomplished to have caught a few as it was a real challenge. A different challenge than most of my experiences on Pennsylvania spring creeks where the fish were - in most, but not all streams - less apt to spook but they were very picky about what they would eat. One type of fishing is not necessarily better than the other - they are just different. I do enjoy the solitude of (most) Wisconsin streams. Our most heavily fished streams - the Timber Coulee / Coon Creek system, Black Earth Creek (though maybe not what it once was now that New Zealand mud snails are there), and the streams within an easy drive of the Twin Cities - in my experiences see nowhere near as many angler hours as Pennsylvania's best known streams. It was rare to fish any of the Pennsylvania streams I mentioned and not have other anglers within eyesight. If I get that sort of solitude on a Wisconsin stream, I wonder how the hell that happened. If I see a car at an access point, I move on. Had I done that in Pennsylvania, I'd have never fished any of those famous streams, at least not during the day.
At the same time, post-COVID, our streams are getting more crowded - I wrote about this about two years ago and again in the spring of 2021. I have not seen the number of inland trout stamps sold in 2021 or 2022 but I would suspect that the baseline has increased a little but we are down from 2020's "height of the pandemic" numbers. Just my hunch based on what I have seen in 2020 and since. And it goes with what we witnessed after fly fishing boomed after "the movie" came out - a rapid increase followed by a slow decline in angler numbers.
It is not just a Wisconsin phenomena - many articles have been written about increased anglers and the potential for overcrowding in the west (example 1, 2, and 3) and other places (Tennessee, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and more generally - everywhere). It has even been called "Rivergedden" more than a few of times. More drastically, in the hunting world, MeatEater founder Steve Rinella's brother Matt wrote an essay, "The Case Against Hunter Recruitment" and R3 (recruit, retain, and re-engage) programs aimed at increasing hunter numbers that drew a ton of interest and many, many rebuttals. And a good post for another day.
We are truly blessed in Wisconsin with the amount of access we have to our streams and lakes. It is probably part of why the state has a high angler participation rate. Between the hundreds (thousands?) of miles of private stream banks eased for public fishing access, the many acres of Wisconsin DNR lands, and the over 1.5 million acres of land in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest; we are blessed with incredible access. One of the most effective ways to prevent overcrowding is to spread the users out across the landscape.
A Semi-Scientific Analysis of Crowding
It is a difficult task to find much pertinent peer reviewed literature on angler crowding. Social sciences / human dimensions research has many fewer researchers and avenues for publication. And I know the human dimensions literature a lot less well. But I think we can all ascertain that crowding is an important factor in how anglers reflect upon their experiences.
For many anglers, crowding is one of the most significant reasons for their lack of satisfaction while fishing. One meta-analysis - an analysis conducted on the results of a large number of published papers - shows that catch-related variables (catch rate, size, and harvest) and two non-catch related variables (access and crowding) were most vital in determining angler satisfaction (Birdsong et al. 2020). Unsurprisingly, anglers want to catch a lot of big fish, many want to keep them, and they want to do it on uncrowded waters with great public access. A bit unrealistic, yeah, but let's face it, us anglers are always dreamers, always hopeful, and not always realistic. We all want to fish Lake Wobegon.
Not surprisingly, crowding is an issue for many outdoor recreation pursuits, not just fishing - and like Shelby and Vaske (2007), I could cite a ton of study to support that, but I won't. While there are probably a few social outdoor pursuits where crowding is not a negative - maybe UTV or snowmobiling - most outdoor pursuits are more solitary endeavors.
Crowding is a lot about expectations and the nature of the outdoor endeavor. If I fish Bennett Springs - I have once - or Veteran's Memorial Park in Coon Valley (a totally different crowding experience), I have totally different expectations. But in neither experience do I expect solitude or even much stream to myself. And if I wanted to support this post with scientific literature, you would see that research tells us much the same. Expectations are everything.
So, what is crowding? Well, it depends upon who you are asking and when. The scientific literature provides very little insight into what is meant by crowding, let alone putting a number on it. We know anglers don't like crowding but we have no good measure of what it really means. I fish the Coon Creek (Timber Coulee) system more than any other location (if I just gave up your secret spot, you need a better secret spot). For me, crowding is not being able to fish the first two or three locations I planned to fish that day. I don't think about fishing an access with a car there unless I can tell if they went upstream or downstream. In a number of other places I have fished, I have not had that luxury. Even on one of the state's more heavily fished watersheds, I rarely find it crowded outside of weekends and early in the season.
Beardmore et al. (2014) - Effectively managing angler satisfaction in recreational fisheries requires understanding of the fish species and the anglers (Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences)