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I Got My Limit

By: Mark Romanack


The process of setting daily limits for popular sport species varies greatly from state to state. In some cases science drives these decisions and in others politics is the law of the land.


In the world of sport fishing, four simple words says it all. The simple phrase “I Got My Limit” pretty much sums up the fishing experience for countless anglers. Those four little words communicate success at the highest level and it doesn’t matter what the “limit” is or what “species” of fish that’s involved.

If you got your limit, you must know what you are doing and what you are doing justifies some bragging rights. Ironically, with some angler groups such as bass fishermen, these folks take great pride in not taking their limit. In fact, not only do bass fishermen feel strongly that fish should be live released to fight another day, musky and many trout anglers also share this passionate feeling.

The interesting thing to me is that a bass fisherman who would never dream of keeping a smallmouth bass, have no problem keeping a limit of walleye if they are lucky enough to find some. Keeping a “limit” isn’t a bad thing, but it does bring up the thought process of how are limits set for the various different species.

Perhaps the real question should be, when limits are set by the respective Department of Natural Resources, did they know what they were doing? This is a loaded statement for sure, but it’s worth looking at if nothing more than as “food for thought” in regards to how our fishery resources are managed from state to state.


SETTING LIMITS

When fishery biologists are setting limits for respective species, they are taking into consideration the population of a species, how much recreational fishing pressure is taking place, is there commercial or tribal harvests, does the available habitat support adequate natural reproduction and if supplemental stocking efforts are taking place. All of this information and more goes into a complex formula for determining what constitutes a “limit” that allows for reasonable harvest without damaging breeding stock that is needed to perpetuate the species.


Slow growing species such as lake trout often require special harvest restrictions. A lake trout is eight years old before it reaches sexual maturity, compared to half that time for most species.


STATES DON’T ALWAYS AGREE

It pains me to say this, but here in Michigan there seems to be less effort put into collecting the science required to conduct fisheries management decisions than in other states. Here’s an example that supports my point. In Michigan the walleye limit for inland waters in the Upper and Lower Peninsula is 5 fish daily that must be at least 15 inches in length. The Detroit River, St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie are exceptions that allow 6 fish daily. Saginaw Bay is another exception that allows 8 fish daily with a 13 inch minimum size.

With the exceptions noted, the State of Michigan is saying that every inland walleye fishery in the state (hundreds of different bodies of water) can support a five fish limit. Compared to other states that look more closely at each and every body of water, Michigan’s approach seems backward. Michigan’s goal in this case is not so much aimed at managing the respective fisheries, but rather at creating simple regulations that are easy for anglers to understand.

I get the fact that complex fishing or hunting regulations can and do cause issues, but it appears to me at least that the Michigan DNR is underestimating the contribution of sportsmen and sportswomen in the management process.

Let’s circle back to the Saginaw Bay 8 fish and a 13 inch minimum for a second. If there is a more generous walleye limit anywhere in the North America, I have not been able to find it. Certainly on the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington state, walleye are not considered a sport species and there is no limit in that situation. Because the Columbia is managed primarily for cold water species like salmon and walleye eat salmon smolts, walleye are considered a nuisance rather than a valuable resource.

My point is that where walleye are treasured as a sport species and also for their tableware, no other state or Canadian providence allows for such a generous limit. So why is the limit so high on Saginaw Bay?

Biologists in the region raised the walleye limit from 5 per day with a 15 inch minimum to 8 per day with a 13 inch minimum to intentionally reduce the overall population of walleye in the Saginaw Bay, Saginaw River and Tittabawassee River systems. Fear of a rapidly growing walleye population doing damage to the forage base was sited as the primary concern.


Bag limits are especially complex with popular species like walleye that are also in high demand for tableware. Adult fish like this one represent the future of a fishery in terms of providing breeding stock. In some states fish like this are protected through slot limits and harvest restrictions and in other states no consideration at all is made to protecting adult sized fish.


The underlaying issue is that when walleye populations spike, other desirable species such as yellow perch tend to decline due to excessive predation on perch by walleye. The irony here is that walleye fishermen out number perch fishermen by about 100 to one on Saginaw Bay!

So is the 8 fish limit on Saginaw Bay justified or is this limit potentially abusive to the fishery? How can the walleye limit on Saginaw Bay be greater than the walleye limit on Lake Erie which is touted as the most productive walleye fishery in the world? You be the judge. Keep in mind that the goal of all this is to create sustaining fisheries that enjoy similar populations from year to year to year.


WHAT ABOUT SALMON LIMITS

Since we are discussing walleye limits in detail, it’s also fair game to discuss salmon limits in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. Michigan allows for 5 salmon/trout per day with a minimum size of 10 inches. No more than three of those fish may be steelhead or lake trout, but an angler can keep up to five coho, chinook or pink salmon per day.

Compared to New York waters of Lake Ontario, the salmon limit is three fish per day and no more than two steelhead or one Atlantic salmon may be in possession. Also, steelhead caught in Lake Ontario must be 21 inches in length to keep and Atlantic salmon must be 25 inches long to keep.

So to put this in perspective, the trout and salmon fishing on Lake Ontario is consistently and considerably better than fishing for the same species on Lake Michigan. So why does Michigan have such a generous limit on salmon when New York’s limit is conservative by comparison?

When I asked Jay Wesley of the Michigan DNR why the limit on salmon in Lake Michigan is so generous compared to Lake Ontario, he indicated that Michigan is reluctant to change limits once they are established. He went on to say he would rather see Michigan stock more salmon than to lower the daily limits on salmon in Lake Michigan. Now that is an interesting statement.

To me the obvious move to improve salmon fishing on Lake Michigan would be to stock more salmon in Lake Michigan and also to reduce the daily bag limits. Since Michigan is depending on natural reproduction to help sustain the salmon fishery, doesn’t it make more sense to reduce the daily limits to provide more fish the opportunity to survive and spawn?


POLITICS

So the question becomes are the daily limits that fishermen are tasked with abiding by created as a result of good science or does politics also influence these decisions? Those anglers who have fished trout and salmon in Lake Michigan for many years might remember when the daily limit was five fish, but only three of any particular species could be kept. A few years ago that was changed to the five fish limit that could include five coho or chinook salmon as a means of competing with Indiana where the limits were more generous than Michigan at the time.

Back when that decision to raise Michigan’s salmon limit to five fish was made, the fishery could easily support the extra harvest. Today, we are in a much different situation and it could easily be argued that Lake Michigan can no longer support a five fish salmon limit.

So when politics instead of science is used to determine the daily limits, the fishery is often at risk.


HEAD ACHE

If you don’t have a head ache yet, chances are by digging deeper into fisheries management and how limits are created will require a bottle of aspirin. This very complex issue is a critical part of managing our valued natural resources. The next time you’re on the water and hunting for that last fish to fill out a limit, think about what goes into creating the fishing regulations we are all tasked with abiding.


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