OK, I have to do it. Debated whether to or not, decided to do it to put some thoughts down in writing. Some of you are not going to like what I have to say, but at least take the time to read and try to understand where we are coming from.
I have been hearing some complaints about our trout regulations that went into effect Jan. 1, 2011. To give you the “gist” of those complaints here is a copy of a column that ran on the North Platte Telegraph’s webpage on Feb. 4, 2011.
Lincoln, we may have a fishing problem| Friday, February 4, 2011 4:07 AM CSTLike in the movie, “Apollo 13″ when Astronaut James Lovell called Mission Control to alert NASA that they had an explosion, “Houston, we have a problem.” In this case, it is a change in the fishing regulations that is causing concern with local anglers. Since the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) is headquartered in the Capital City, “Lincoln, we may have a problem.”
It all began with some of the new fishing regulations that went into effect Jan. 1. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was attempting to streamline the fishing regulations, and that is a good thing! I’m all for simplifying regulations.
I never want us to have fishing regulations like Colorado. They are way over-complicated. You almost have to have a GPS unit with you and check it every few steps because the regulations can change numerous times in the same stream. Certain sections allow live bait, others don’t. Move a quarter mile and you may be in a section that only allows artificial lures and then it may change to whether or not you must use a barbless hook. I never want Nebraska’s fishing regulation to get to this point.
As I said, I’m all for simplification of regulations, but a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works in the real world. That is what I think happened with the latest NGPC regulation change. The specific regulation in question states: “The statewide daily bag limit is five, with no more than one fish longer than 16 inches, and the possession limit is 10. The trout regulations on the Two Rivers State Recreation Area (SRA) put-and-take trout have not changed.”
I believe the intent of the regulation attempts to do a couple things. First, the NGPC wants to protect and manage a resource. Secondly, they are attempting to create a better fishery for everyone.
I, and most anglers I’ve talked with, have no qualms with the requirement to limit the daily catch to five trout, or the 10 trout in possession. The concern is the “no more than one fish longer than 16 inches” portion of the regulation.
The canal from Keystone Diversion Dam to Paxton is probably the premier trout water in the state. As trout habitat, this body of water has every thing that trout can use. The food/forage base in this area is so good that the trout will grow half-inch to an inch per month.
Daryl Bauer, one of the chief fisheries biologists for the NGPC, writes a popular blog you can access via the NGPC website. He recently had this to say about the trout fishery that I’m talking about:
“Trout stocking started at the end of last December and less than a year later the trout fishery at Lake Ogallala is BACK! There is a stretch of North Platte River below Lake Ogallala that supports trout and offers some public access. Most of those fish ranged from 10-14 inches, but we caught a half-dozen or so that were 17-18 inches. I would guess the 17-18-inch fish would have been some of the first trout that were stocked back into Lake Ogallala following last year’s rotenone renovation. Those fish would have been stocked when they were approximately 10 inches long and if you do the math you will figure out that rainbow trout in Lake Ogallala can grow at a rate approaching an inch per month when water and habitat conditions are good. The Lake Ogallala trout fishery is back right now, and it is going to get even better in the next few years.”
Bauer was right. What I hear from anglers fishing the canal is that catching a fish less than 16-inches long is the problem. One local angler who wrote the NGPC about this issue stated: “A recent trip to the Keystone Canal, I caught four trout, all of which were 16-inches or longer. My concern is that four years from now when the canal is drained for inspection and repair, this restriction imposed on fisherman on the canal will allow a very limited harvest of these trophy trout. The remaining fish will die in the few existing pools. Had I chose to keep any fish, I would only have been able to keep one fish, by law. After hooking, landing, measuring and releasing the other three, it is my opinion that their chances of survival would be very slim.”
The angler above makes a good point. Trout are a relatively fragile fish. Catch-and-release can work, but I think there is a higher mortality rate with trout than with other species. What I see happening under the current regulation is that anglers will fish for several hours. Based upon my experience, in a 4-hour fishing trip, an angler could catch six to 10 fish, yet only keep one because the majority of the trout in the canal right now are 16-inches or longer. Of the fish released (as required by the regulation) maybe half of them will die. Is this a wise use of resources?
Another angler I talked to asked why we need the new limits anyway.
“If you look at the record books, the state record trout was caught in this section of the canal back in 1975. That was back when they allowed you to take more fish, seven at the time, and there was no length limit. So why did we change things? There will be plenty of big fish to catch. I don’t see the problem we are trying to fix with the new regulation.”
And as an interesting side note, another avid angler added this to the discussion.
“The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is constantly worried about losing anglers and declining permit sales. This is a good example of why fewer people want to fish or buy permits. I cost me about $25 in gas to drive from North Platte to fish the canal. If I can catch and bring home five fish, as per the regulations, that figures out to $5 per fish. Not good, but not bad either. Now they say I can only bring home one fish for that same $25 cost in travel, meaning a single trout now costs me $25. Why bother? I can go to a nice restaurant and order a trout dinner for less than that. And they wonder why they are losing anglers!”
The loss of the big trout we’re growing is within sight. A federal requirement mandates that the canal be drained and inspected every five years. The next time that is scheduled to happen is September. I doubt seriously that the bulk of this resource can be utilized, taking home only one fish over 16 inches per day, by September. How many of these trout will go to waste?
I don’t think this issue was thought through completely and it needs to be reviewed again and probably changed.
There is already a caveat in the regulation pertaining to Two Rivers State Recreation Area.
Why not simply make another “exception” to the regulations and address the canal fishery we have here?
Here is the comment that I left:
“Lincoln, we may have a fishing problem”
We have no problem at all! In fact with water levels back up in McConaughy and the recent rotenone renovation, Lake Ogallala is back to being one of the best trout fisheries between Missouri and the Rockies! Lake Ogallala and associated waters (i.e. the canal and North Platte River below Lake Ogallala) are the highest quality rainbow trout waters in Nebraska. We have had some special regulations, reduced bag limits and length limits, for the trout in that fishery in the past because one of our objectives is to produce some high quality trout fishing there!
Special fishing regulations usually require the release of some fish. Of course those fish need to be released with the best possible chance of survival. Is that impossible with “fragile” trout? NO, NOT AT ALL. Many trout fisheries are managed with special regulations that require anglers to release most, if not all, of the trout they catch.
I realize that trout, especially those caught on live or prepared baits may be more difficult to release with a high survival rate, but it is not impossible. I have fished Lake Ogallala and associated waters every chance I get for years and rarely keep any fish. I also rarely fly-fish. My strategy for releasing those fish is to use smaller hooks and smaller baits. One of the most important prey items for Lake Ogallala trout is midge larvae–a prey item that can be easily imitated with relatively small baits with small hooks (and you will catch a darned lot of fish doing that). I always use a rubber mesh landing net which is easy on the fish and allows me to land those fish as quickly as possible and handle them as little as possible. On some stretches of the canal I have used an extra-long handle on that landing net, or have even rigged the hoop of my landing net so it can be thrown into the water where I can lead a fish into the net and then using a rope on the hoop get the fish from the water to the top of the canal for hook removal and then release. I will not tell you that every trout I and my partners have landed have survived release, but I am betting most of them have. I am certain that more 16-inch and larger trout will survive catch & release than would have survived if they are harvested.
Periodic rotenone renovations to reduce common carp and sucker numbers have been an important fisheries management tool for the Lake Ogallala trout fishery. When carp and sucker numbers are reduced water quality and habitat conditions improve, and the trout have less competition for prey. Under the best of conditions, rainbow trout growth rates in Lake Ogallala and associated waters have been documented to be as high as an inch per month. At those times, if those trout are given a chance to grow for a short time, quality, big trout are the result. Since its creation, Lake Ogallala has been chemically renovated on three occasions, 1969, 1997 and 2009.
Our state record rainbow trout was caught from the canal back in 1975. That was an entirely different time in terms of trout production in both Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala, a different time in terms of water levels and water quality, and a different time for anglers and their ability to catch fish. In the years between the 1969 and 1997 rotenone renovations, anglers averaged 24 Master Angler rainbow trout from Lake Ogallala and associated waters. In the years between the 1997 and 2009 renovations, anglers only averaged 9.5 Master Angler rainbow trout from the same waters. Now, water conditions, water quality and habitat conditions have the most influence on the production of Master Angler trout in those waters, but might not angling pressure be part of the reason for less Master Angler trout? Following the most recent rotenone renovation, might more Master Angler trout be produced with a daily limit of only one trout larger than 16 inches? Will we ever have a chance of producing a new state record rainbow trout in those waters without some special harvest restrictions?
Anytime water is leaving a reservoir there are at least some fish moving out with that water. We know that a significant number of trout migrate downstream from Lake Ogallala into both the canal and the North Platte River. The power district is required to periodically drain the canal for inspections and repairs. However, the draining of the canal does not necessarily mean all of the fish there are lost or “wasted”. During the recent drought the canal was essentially dewatered every year and few fish survived that dewatering. However, previous to the drought water levels in the canal were not dropped as far as they were during the drought. During good water years, when inspections and repairs occurred, there could be enough water left in some sections of the canal to keep trout alive. In years when water levels in the canal are dropped for inspections and repairs, efforts are made to salvage trout and transport them back to Lake Ogallala. Anglers can also take advantage of the low water levels in the canal by targeting the areas where the trout are concentrated. I have no idea what the power district might do, but my point is that those fish in the canal do not necessarily “go to waste” even in years when inspections and repairs occur.
New fishing regulations went into effect January 1 and we tried to come up with a trout regulation that would apply to almost all waters in the state. That includes Lake Ogallala and associated waters where we are trying to produce a high-quality trout fishery. The only exception to the statewide trout regulation is Lake #5 on the Two Rivers State Recreation Area where we have a special put-and-take trout fishery and anglers are required to purchase tags to fish for the trout that are stocked there. The Two Rivers area has had that special put-and-take fishery since 1961, and no, we did not change regulations there. There might be some other special regulations that would work for Lake Ogallala and associated waters, but I am betting all of those would include some restrictions on harvest, likely restrictions on the harvest of big fish, and those regulations could be even more complicated (especially if you were looking at different regulations for different years depending on canal dewatering). We asked for public comment on our proposed trout regulations including the one over 16 inches per day proposal last summer. Of the few comments we received on that proposal, the majority were in favor of it. In fact I had comments from folks who believed the trout harvest regulations on Lake Ogallala and associated waters should be even more restrictive.
For the anglers who just want to harvest a bunch of trout, there will be plenty of trout less than 16 inches long in Lake Ogallala and associated waters. Over 54,600 trout were stocked in Lake Ogallala last year in seven different months, and even with fantastic growth rates not all of those fish are now larger than 16 inches. Another 60,000, 9-10-inch rainbow trout are planned for stocking again throughout 2011. In fact, the first of those fish were stocked in January. In addition we stock catchable-size trout for anglers to harvest in a number of other waters like Birdwood just west of North Platte and the Humphrey Pond in Ogallala. Anglers are encouraged to harvest up to 5 trout per day from those waters, and they will rarely, if ever, have to worry about any of those fish being larger than 16 inches.
Anglers come in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, and styles and have a variety of desires. Believe it or not, especially in this age, many of them do not care if they harvest all or even some of their catch. In fact some anglers are looking for fisheries where they have a chance to catch AND RELEASE quality fish. Lake Ogallala and associated waters can produce those fish, and the restriction of one 16-inch and larger trout per day is appropriate for that management strategy. There will be a lot of anglers happy to have a Nebraska trout fishery where they have a chance to catch quality rainbow trout, and a lot of them will drive a lot of miles and spend a lot of money just to have a chance to catch and release those quality fish.
If the fishing is good, people will come, and there are going to be a bunch of them coming for big rainbow trout in the coming years.
The tailwater fishery in Lake Ogallala, the canal, and a stretch of North Platte River below Lake Ogallala is an unique fishery in Nebraska. That is our one cold-water fishery that has the ability produce fast-growing and large rainbow trout on waters that are readily accessible to the public. We did try to simplify fishing regulations this year and in doing that we now have one regulation that applies to all waters in the state (with the exception of the pay-to-fish trout fishery at Two Rivers State Recreation Area). Should we manage Lake Ogallala and associated waters the same as we manage every other put-and-take rainbow trout fishery in the state? Those waters have the ability to produce high-quality trout and application of the daily bag limit of no more than one trout larger than 16 inches should enhance that quality trout fishery. Would other regulations be better? Maybe, there have been some other ideas kicked around, but you better believe those regulations would not be simpler.
Let me say this, some anglers are complaining now because they cannot catch any trout from that fishery that are less than 16 inches long; therefore, they are not happy about being able to keep only one trout per day! The trout fishery in Lake Ogallala and those waters downstream is BACK, and it should get even better for the next few years. You might have to release some fish if you fish there, and I suspect we may need to educate some anglers on how to do that so the fish have the best chance to survive (yes, it can be done even with “fragile” trout). If you have never experienced the fishing there, you need to plan to go, and now would be an excellent time! Those rainbows will be very catchable even in the cold water and schizo weather of early spring.