Lake has trophy-size fish but DNR evaluating stocking levels

by Dan Colton 
for The Beacon

A 30 pound King Salmon. – photo by Dumper Dan’s

A local charter fisherman said Lake Michigan is ready for increased fish stocking, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is taking a serious look at doing just that.

According to Dan Welsch, owner of Dumper Dan’s Sport Fishing Charter, the evidence is obvious. Salmon and trout in the lake are healthy and big in size, Welsch said, but their numbers remain lower than he’d like to see.

The increased fish sizes, according to Welsch, are due to an abundance of prey with little competition for food. And with plenty to feed on, the salmon and trout grow to trophy size. But, according to Welsch, that’s not the optimum choice.

His clients are out for numbers, he said.

“Customers want to see more fish,” Welsch said. “The salmon and trout run good in size no matter what, so instead of going for a 30-pounder, they’d rather go home with five-to-ten 15-pounders.”

Welsch added, “What I’m seeing, bar none, is they want more fish.” 

For the past several years, Welsch said an organization he belongs to, Wisconsin Lakefront Business Association, has kept detailed fishing data for the DNR. He said the numbers paint a clear picture. According to Welsch, Lake Michigan is prime for more prize fish.

Armed with the data, Welsch said the WLBA requested more than 1.5 million king salmon be stocked each year over three years, about double the current levels. Welsch said he and the other WLBA members also want additional coho salmon, rainbow and brown trout to maintain a diverse fishery. Increasing fish will give anglers a chance to harvest more fish and yet still have a good shot at a trophy fish.

And the DNR is listening. A recent Natural Resources Board meeting in Mishicot addressed the issue while the department undertakes a period of public comments on the issue. Following the public comment period, an updated policy is expected shortly, according to officials.

“In October, we hope to have a decision on Lake Michigan management strategies, including stocking,” said Todd Kalish, DNR fisheries bureau deputy director.

But putting more fish into the lake is just a single component of keeping fish numerous and healthy. Kalish said protecting habitat in rivers and lakes is key, especially in critical areas where fish naturally spawn.

“Our ultimate goal is to stop stocking and have a fishery solely supported by natural populations,” Kalish said. 

About three years ago, the DNR decided to decreased fish stocking in the lake after the amount of prey fish dropped too low to support the larger, prized predator fish like salmon. But now, data from charter fishing operations like Dumper Dan’s has changed the narrative as the fishing industry is poised to grow.

The DNR says fishing in Wisconsin is responsible for $2.3 billion in state economic impacts. More than 21,000 jobs are supported by fishing in Wisconsin. The state issues more than 1.25 million  angling licenses per year, the ninth highest in the nation, according to DNR data.

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