If you are reading this blog, you are probably NOT an average angler. Now, I have fished with some of you so I am not saying that you are a better than average angler (shots fired!) but you are most likely more dedicated and fish more than most anglers. Most trout anglers do not fish that many days a year - 11 is the national average, they don't buy licenses or trout stamps all that often, they don't fish with a fly rod, and *gasp* quite often keep trout. In fact, they largely fish to keep catch their dinner.
First a bit about the "average trout angler" and then I'll discuss how this affects the management of trout - and maybe more importantly - trout anglers.
The "average" trout angler in Wisconsin is male (nearly 90% of those buying stamps were male) and at least 45 years old (the largest age categories are all over 45). Wisconsin is probably pretty similar demographically to the rest of the country even if the state's angling participation rate is one of the highest in the country. A bit more than 10% of Wisconsin anglers buy a trout stamp. There are approximately 1.3M fishing licenses and about 130-150 thousand inland trout stamps are sold in the state each year.
I would be the "average" angler if it were not for the effort and experience part. You see, the average trout angler across the country fishes 11 days a year. There is about a 50/50 chance that the "average angler" will buy a license again next year. Across the country, for anglers of all types, only 4% of anglers bought a license in each of the past 10 years.
The following figures are taken from Wisconsin DNR publications (source) and are from people that attended the 2011 trout management meetings held throughout the state.
Obviously there are some issues with the data - more experienced anglers are likely to round to whole numbers. However, it is quite evident that more experienced anglers are more likely to attend trout management meetings.
These are data from public meetings which provide different results than do random surveys of purchasers of inland trout stamps where about 13% of trout anglers indicate that the "always" fish for trout with a fly rod (Source). Sixty percent of those attending the meetings always or frequently fly fished. Of those that attended meetings in 2011, only 27% sometimes to frequently fished bait and 41% sometimes to always fished with spinners and artificial lures.
Among those attending meetings (above), a majority never or rarely keep trout from streams (59%). Compared to those that purchase trout stamps, this is quite an anomaly. From the report, "Mail survey respondents, when asked about their angling behavior in 2011, indicated that about 66% of Brook Trout and 55% of Brown Trout that were caught were kept for consumption" (Petchenik 2014).
Obviously we get quite different results depending upon how trout anglers are surveyed. Those attending meetings are not representative of all trout anglers. Anglers attending meetings are more experienced, are more likely to be fly and spin anglers, are less likely to be consumptive anglers, and trout fishing means enough to them to attend meetings and have their voices heard.
What it Means for Fisheries Management?
Those in the field of fisheries management will tell you that the biology is the easy part; trying to understand and "manage" people is much more difficult. There is NOT an average trout angler. It would be easier if there was. We are all unique, with our own, experiences, desires, reasons for fishing, and opinions. This makes the people management part of fisheries management quite difficult.
The most vocal anglers are those that researchers would call specialized. For these anglers - and you are probably one of them if you have read this far - they identify themselves as trout anglers, fly fishers, or other similar descriptors. They are dedicated anglers that are more likely to members of Trout Unlimited and other conservation organizations that are interested in trout, trout streams, and their watersheds. They - well we - are more likely to attend resource agencies meetings and return their surveys because we want our voices to be heard because trout fishing is important to us. Quite frankly, we are a squeaky wheel.
A dilemma for fisheries management is, how much do you listen to these squeaky wheels? After all, they generally fish more often, have more experience, and trout fishing is very important to them. They're willing to take their time to let their opinions and feelings known. They're willing to give their time and resources to try to help improve trout fishing. They may even make up the majority of angling effort for trout, despite being a minority of trout anglers. In the nine and a half months of the inland trout season - more if you fish a few of the inland streams that open into November - you fish two days a month on average, you are well above the average days spent trout fishing.
How do fisheries managers weigh all these voices, some of which are much louder than others? If they can't manage for the "average", how do they manage the resource and keep everyone happy.
You Can't Please Them All...
Fisheries managers have a difficult task and they are NOT going to keep everyone happy. Just get online for a while and look at social media, message boards, and other places and you will quickly see that not everyone is happy. When dealing with people with different desires and expectations for recreation, recreation managers typically attempt to provide a diversity of experiences and often attempt to "socially distance" different users (yeah, a quite different kind of social distancing...). For example, not all trails allow motorized vehicles (ATV, UTV, motorcycles), in part, because if they did, it would diminish the experience for those that want to hike, bike, or ride horses as well as for the motorized vehicle users who would be "dodging" horses, bikes, and hikers.
For trout fishing, this generally means providing a diversity of angling opportunities. Provide something for nearly everyone. OK, maybe not everyone. But most everyone.
The map of Wisconsin trout stream categories reflects biological and social diversity of the state. Fisheries managers attempt to provide a diversity of experiences to trout anglers. If managers listened only to those attending meetings and providing feedback, we would probably see a different map. If they listened only to the "average angler", we would see yet another different map. Trying to provide a diversity of experiences for anglers, protect certain resources (i.e. native Brook Trout), provide unique experiences (i.e. trophy Brown Trout fishery), and keep most people happy is no simple task.
That, in a nutshell, is fisheries management. The biology is the relatively easy part. The people part of the equation is much more difficult to understand and get right (there may be no "right"). You know you have a pretty good compromise if nobody is totally happy.