Wisconsin Trout Stamps: History and Future
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Wisconsin's inland trout stamp program was created in a bold and nearly unprecedented action that continues to pay dividends today. 1977 was a different time or so I have been told (I was 5) and the Wisconsin DNR with their long history of trout stream management made a bold move. The creation of the trout stamp may have been bold enough on its own but how they established how the money raised by the inland trout stamp can be spent required real foresight. Most states establish trout stamps to pay for trout stocking. Wisconsin's trout stamp was used to fund the management of wild trout, not stocking which is funded through general fishing license sales. As they write in the most recent inland waters trout stamp (IWTS) expenditures report:
Wisconsin State Statue 29.2285 (1)(e) states: “The Department shall expend the receipts from the sale under this subsection of inland waters trout stamps on improving and maintaining trout habitat in inland trout waters, conducting trout surveys in inland trout waters and administering this subsection.”
I do not think it can be stated too often or forcibly how important this piece of legislation is for trout fishing in Wisconsin. In the years after 1977, wild trout streams slowly became the norm and trout stocking declined. This is important as the dollars from the IWTS were used to improve, to study, and to manage trout streams and helped create fisheries that are biologically and economically self-sustaining. I do not think that this significant change comes without the significant money and leadership that the IWTS brought.
In 2018, the last year I could find published data for, the IWTS brought in nearly $1.7 million for the management of trout fishing in Wisconsin. Approximately 47% of this revenue went towards salaries and benefits for employees responsible for the management of trout streams. The remaining $866,451 was used to pay for supplies and services which largely means it is spent to buy rocks, equipment, and other materials that are used for stream improvement projects.
While the figure from the 2015-2018 Expenditures of Inland Waters Trout Stamp Revenues shows an increase in revenue, the numbers are not linked to inflation. In 1979, the second year that the stamp was sold, approximately 183,000 stamp purchasers brought nearly $394,000 into the IWTS fund. In dollars, this equates to approximately $1,563,000 in 2020 dollars, pretty close to the amount of revenue in 2018. And how the money has been spent has changed. In 2000 - to pick a year "way back when" that I could find data for - the IWTS expenditures that went to directly to stream improvements was 64% of the expenditures compared to about 54% in 2018.
What You Can Do
Here is what, in my estimation, you can do to support sustainable trout fisheries in Wisconsin.
Buy an inland trout stamp. Supporters of wetlands and our National Wildlife Refuges - whether they are waterfowl hunters or not - often buy a federal "duck stamp". Do the same for Wisconsin's trout stamp even if you do not fish trout. Good and healthy trout streams are important for other waters as well and in many ways are the "canary in the coal mine" as trout are more sensitive to temperature and pollution than many other species. If you buy a patron's license, know that about $3.40 of Patron's license purchases go to the IWTS fund.
Support a fee increase. Wisconsin Trout Unlimited has lobbied for an increase in the trout stamp from $10 to $15. The IWTS has been $10 since 2006 when it was last increased. This means that adjusted to inflation, that same stamp should cost about $13 today. And when you keep in mind that the next stamp increase may not occur for another 15 years, the $5 increase will probably not even keep up with inflation. Five dollars is a fancy cup of coffee, a beer at the local brew pub or two Miller Lites. Five bucks does not even buy a Subway footlong anymore.
Support coldwater conservation. The IWTS has been a hugely important for trout management and the shift we have seen from stocked to wild, self-sustaining trout fisheries in the state. The trout stamp is important but so too are the efforts of many conservation organizations that complement what the WDNR does with trout stamp funds. The state's Trout Unlimited chapters, Fly Fishers International chapters, and local conservation organizations play an important role in coldwater conservation and stream improvements. And, it is not just about money. If you do not have the money to support these groups, your time and advocacy is just as important. When I have been one of the "young guys" for going on 30 years, it is pretty evident that these groups can use some committed young people for a host of reasons (but bring a strong back).
Be an advocate. Not everyone understands or appreciates why self-sustaining coldwater resources are important. Being an advocate ranges anywhere from sharing your experiences and thoughts to getting more involved politically. There is a growing number of people interested in the outdoors and our environment but not everyone knows or understands why healthy environments are important. Tell them about how streambank stabilization in the Driftless is removing a source of sediment and nutrients from the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone. Tell them that trout are the "canaries in the coal mine" - they are in indicator of clean water and a healthy environment. Healthy riparian zones are important for birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other animals. Healthy environments are economically important not only for tourism economies but also for human health.
Wisconsin's trout stamp has transformed trout fishing in Wisconsin. Along with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act ("youngsters" might not remember when acid rain was the most visible environmental issue of the day), and the IWTS have probably done more for trout fishing in Wisconsin than any other pieces of legislation.
Why this is more Important than Ever
Why I wrote this now is that we are in an important time for trout management in Wisconsin. Unprecedented floods in the last several years have altered many miles of streams throughout the state, including some of the best known and most heavily fished streams in the state. The IWTS has not seen an increase in 15 years and revenue has not kept up with inflation or need. And if we want to maintain the fishing we have had the last few decades, it will require some effort. Now given the political climate of the state, there is little chance we see a fee increase anytime soon so it is important that you support local conservation efforts - even if you do not agree with everything these conservation organizations do.