Study Suggests Some Fishing Regulations Aren’t in Line with Fishing Reality

A new study by Center for Limnology researchers says that, when it comes to managing our sport fisheries, some regulations aren’t in line with the reality of fishing trips.

Gaeta (on left) doesn't just study anglers, he's an avid fisherman, himself. Photo: Noah Lottig
Gaeta (on left) doesn’t just study anglers, he’s an avid fisherman, himself. Photo: Noah Lottig

CFL post-doctoral researcher, Jereme Gaeta, is lead author of the report, published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, and says that, currently, the main tool fisheries managers have to control population numbers of fish species are regulations like catch and release seasons, bag limits and minimum size restrictions.
For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a mandatory catch and release season in late spring and early summer for largemouth bass, when males are sitting on nests and guarding eggs and young fish.
“The idea,” Gaeta explains, “is that [if caught by an angler] catch and release restrictions will let these males get back to their nests and protect the next generation of bass. But what we found is that there is no change in catch and release rates [of largemouth] between the mandatory catch and release season and the regular season [when fishermen could keep the fish].”
In other words, even when the mandatory catch and release season is over, anglers keep throwing back their bass, suggesting that some fishing regulations don’t actually regulate angler behavior.
Largemouth bass. Illustration courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

By inserting some fish-related questions into a large boater survey being conducted by CFL researchers, Gaeta was able to collect data from 652 anglers who went on 5,007 fishing trips across a 12,000 square kilometer chunk of northern Wisconsin. The top three targets of these fishing trips were walleye, muskellunge and panfish like bluegill, perch and crappie.
According to the survey results, anglers released 99% of musky, 97% of black (small and largemouth) bass, 86% of pike and 67% of both walleye and panfish. Since the survey also asked why the fish were released, Gaeta and his team were able to conclude that, by and large, they were voluntary releases. Only walleye were being given back grudgingly.
“With panfish,” Gaeta says, “they [anglers] were catching so many and only keeping the “good” ones. But for walleye, they were mostly releasing them because of size limits.”
For a struggling fish species like walleye, DNR size restrictions appear to be helping the fish get back in the lake and live to fight and, ideally, reproduce another day. But the high rate of catch and release isn’t ideal for the management goals of other species.
A map showing the lakes where the 652 anglers in Gaeta's study took their 5,007 fishing trips. Image: J. Gaeta
A map showing the lakes where the 652 anglers in Gaeta’s study took their 5,007 fishing trips. Image: J. Gaeta

Again, bass provide a useful example. Bass used to be a table fish for lots of anglers, Gaeta says, but, starting in the 1980’s, fishing tournaments “really pushed for the idea of conserving bass and changed their image from tablefish to trophies.”
With most bass being taken out of a lake only long enough for a photograph, their numbers began to grow. That meant more bass in the lake fighting over food. The increased competition doesn’t mean much in southern lakes, with their warmer waters, longer growing seasons, and abundant food. But in northern lakes, bass overabundance can really stunt growth.
“Up here,” Gaeta says, “a legal-size bass can be anywhere from 5 to 15 years old. In some systems they can be so stunted that only 1 out of a 100 fish ever reach legal size limits.”
Gaeta says it may be time for fisheries managers to add a few new tools to their “toolbox” For example, outreach programs could promote the idea of getting a fish like bass back on the menu. He points to tournaments that promote bass and pike as good eats, like “You Hook ‘Em, We Cook ‘Em” events in northern Wisconsin, as an example.
Of course, the real trick might be deciding what it is anglers are after. “Anglers aren’t just part of the fishery,” he says, “they are part of a culture. And the flip side of this is what do you call a good fishery? Do you want big bass, or do you want to hook a bass on every single cast?”
Gaeta’s not about to wade into that debate. He’s just hoping his study can help point to the need for new tools as fisheries managers address the changing tastes of Wisconsin anglers and the changing fates of Wisconsin fish.