Let’s talk about ice fishing tournaments

Whether you refer to them as “jamborees,” “fisherees,” or something else, ice fishing tournaments are a major part of outdoor life in Wisconsin.

In fact, at last count, there were 120 DNR-approved ice fishing tournaments in our state scheduled between January 1 and March 4 of this year. That’s 13 per weekend.

These events are often fundraisers for everything from volunteer fire departments to conservation groups. They can be a great way to socialize and relax during a time of year when recreation can be a bit more of a challenge.

While these regulated events are closely watched by the DNR, they are only part of the story. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tournaments conducted without DNR approval.

How can this be?

Well, not all jamborees are required to apply for a permit.

According to the Wisconsin DNR website:

“You will need a tournament permit in cases where any of the following apply:

  • The tournament involves 20 or more boats or 100 or more participants;
  • The tournament targets any trout species on waters classified as trout streams;
  • The tournament is a catch-hold-release tournament with an off-site weigh-in;
  • The total prize value is $10,000 or greater, or
  • The tournament will have fewer than 20 boats but you want to allow participants to cull bass.

The fact is: many of the smaller ice fishing tournaments in Wisconsin, including the two I participated in this year, do not meet these standards and therefore do not need to apply for a permit to conduct their event.

There is undoubtedly a good deal of science and data that goes into setting these criteria. But it’s nearly impossible to deny that even small-scale events have a chance to negatively impact the waters they take place on. And we don’t even know how many there are. That’s part of the problem.

“Since we do not currently collect information on the smaller unpermitted tournaments, we can’t say that they aren’t having an impact,” said Justine Hasz, Director of the Bureau of Fisheries Management for the Wisconsin DNR. “We are currently seeking the public’s input on this very issue through the annual Wisconsin Conservation Congress spring hearings process with an advisory question.”

Most, if not all, ice fishing tournaments are catch-and-kill affairs. The only way you can register a fish is by keeping it. And that opens the door to the possibility of fish being kept that would otherwise be released.

While I am not against taking a few fish for the table and controlling populations, lack of regulation, particularly when we don’t know the scale of the potential impact, makes me nervous. This is especially true on smaller bodies of water.

Consider the most recent event I participated in. The tournament was held on a 22-acre lake in Sheboygan County and had 40 participants. That’s a good amount of fishing pressure.

How many fish were taken out of the population that day alone? Only the organizers know and even that is assuming they kept track.

Did this event decimate the fish population in this lake? Probably not. But the problem is that, without tracking, the DNR (and any participating angler, for that matter) has no idea what the impact of this tournament was.

Another event held recently in my neck of the woods took place on a 16-acre lake. That’s a pretty small area of water to endure an all-day fishing tournament, particularly when every fish being registered is being kept.

By my tally, Sheboygan County alone is home to nearly a dozen events of this nature per year. I know of two bodies of water that play host to more than one tournament each winter. Ironically, one of them has special panfish regulations during the springtime to help effectively promote a healthy population. But, in winter, everything is fair game so long as bag limits are followed.

There is no question these fisherees have some effect on the fish populations in these waters. But, again, we have no quantitative idea of the level of this impact.

Now the case can be made that, if fish populations in these lakes have seemingly been able to handle the pressure brought on by non-sanctioned tournaments, this is a non-issue.

But when it comes to conservation, I always prefer to err on the side of caution, especially in a world where pollution, climate change, and invasive species affect the ability of fish to thrive.

Currently, we’re taking an environmental gamble with how we manage our ice fishing events. It doesn’t need to be that way.

In my eyes, there are two solutions.

The first is requiring all organizers of ice fishing tournaments to apply for a permit, regardless of the number of participants. The fees, as they currently stand with larger tournaments, are relatively minor and would be largely unnoticeable in the bottom line.

Heck, there may not even have to be a fee, so long as the tournament supplies a comprehensive list of results. In fact, the DNR isn’t even talking about the financial aspect at this juncture. The question posed in the aforementioned public input survey question states:

“If DNR were to pursue any changes to these regulations, the first step would be to collect information on the number and frequency of small fishing tournaments on Wisconsin waters. A mandatory self-registration system would enable this data collection. If small tournaments cumulatively account for substantial tournament pressure, the DNR may pursue additional regulations including requiring a free, general permit for small tournaments but restricting the total number of tournaments or participants on a waterbody per month.”

This would be a good start. The approach not only gives the DNR the ability to get its arms around the number of these small tournaments taking place each year, it also potentially allows access to key harvest information that is needed to effectively manage fish populations.

The downfall of this approach is that enforcement is difficult. Our over-worked conservation officers are already tasked with far more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle.

But there is another option, one that doesn’t necessarily involve regulation or other government intervention.

As anglers, we could collectively decide to start encouraging tournaments that utilize a catch, picture, release system. I’ve participated in several open water events that operate this way.

In these modern times, when basically every human roaming the earth has a phone in their pocket, this approach makes a lot of sense.

There are numerous apps available that allow tournament organizers to effectively run a on event without a fish needing to be out of the water for more than a few seconds.

It’s pretty simple. The day of the tournament, every participant is given an identifier code. That code must be present in every picture that is submitted for consideration (to prevent cheating).

Fish are photographed while on a trough-style measuring board to ensure an accurate length is captured. Pictures are submitted to the app which then automatically generates a leaderboard for each category.

And the fish can be released to swim another day.

Want to keep the fish anyway? That’s fine. So long as you are following the law, you are entitled to do that. But the app ensures that keeping fish is not a requirement for entering the tournament. This gives anglers the option to make real-time management decisions on their own terms.

There’s nothing worse than rushing to register a 24-inch pike, only to find out that 29 inches was the minimum length needed to make the leaderboard.

As the world has evolved, so have our options to manage fish populations. It’s time we start thinking differently about how we run ice fishing tournaments.

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