Recently passed NRC amendments to steelhead fishing regulations are not scientific, are unnecessary and restrict angler opportunities

By Nick Green, Michigan Out-of-Doors Editor

Vesting oneself into work-related topics is part and parcel of who many of us are. Working in the conservation world, one must dig even deeper to find ways to remain interested, engaged and vigilant but detached enough to realize that everything can’t always go in our favor.

That’s the only way to be sure we can do this day in and day out without burning out.

When we live the conservation lifestyle — spending weekends with wet, sloppy dogs, up to our elbows in deer guts, or taking the grandkids out fishing — we are a part of something. And for me, I must remind myself that this something is ultimately more significant than you or I or the passage of one regulation.

Recent steelhead regulations (dubbed the Nyberg amendment) passed by the Natural Resources Commission forced me to face such a problem personally. In a unanimous vote, the commission passed steelhead regulations that lowered the bag limit to one fish 20 inches or greater on select streams.

Of note: A small percent of anglers actually keep more than one fish.

Anglers pay to rear and plant steelhead in several of these streams. Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologists employed using angler monies said this regulation would have little to no impact on the already-declining steelhead population. The biologists told us that the perceived benefit does not outweigh the restriction of opportunity.

I’ll add that the MUCC Executive Board passed an emergency resolution to oppose the regulation. Being from an area lucky enough to have several of the streams this regulation impacts, I understand that catch-and-keep fishing is important to locals and tourists on rivers like the Betsie and big Manistee.

Knowing science doesn’t support lowering the limit to one fish for a select few that keep more than one, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around catering to the small minority pushing for this change — catch-and-release fishing guides. For them, more fish in the stream and less kept by anglers means more fish their clients can catch and put back for the next client to catch.

This is fine — and I am a diehard fly angler for trout who catches and releases most of my fish — when it isn’t at the expense of those who pay to plant and manage the fishery. I also don’t impose my fishing mentality on others. We should not favor those who fish for sport over those who fish for sport AND enjoy eating a fish they catch now and then.

Frustration builds when I watch guide after guide park on spring gravel runs and let their clients pull steelhead off of the redds on the same rivers bag limits were lowered on. Instead of penalizing the tiny minority of anglers who keep more than one fish they paid to manage, why don’t we stop fishing steelhead on gravel in streams where wild reproduction is paramount?

While very difficult to define and enforce, a regulation like that would make far better headway with steelhead populations than limiting keep to one on select streams — especially streams with heavy stocking efforts from the DNR.

For those of us at MUCC, these are the issues we face daily, personally and professionally. We walk the walk and talk the talk, but we also have to understand that while this steelhead regulation may have passed, there is an opportunity to improve things. Newly passed commercial guiding legislation will significantly improve our inland fishing data, informing future regulations.

What should we do when the commission votes differently than recommended or in a way that might need more information to support a restriction? Should there be a process to appeal such decisions? Is this regulation venturing into the social science realm? Or is it better to be cautious before it is too late?

These are all questions MUCC seeks to answer. No matter if it is a win or a loss, we use every opportunity to improve our world. And for those of us who live and breathe conservation, this is just another day at the office.