Angler surveys lead to better understanding of why people fish, better amenities for anglers
We know quite a bit about the reasons why someone wants to go fishing. When surveyed, anglers most often say that they seek the camaraderie that accompanies a day on the water, whether it be with a lifelong fishing buddy, spouse, daughter or some other confidant. Spending time in the great outdoors frequently finishes second on such surveys—"the aesthetics, just being outside, sitting on a boat, sitting on a dock, those kind of things," said Chris Chizinski, an associate professor of human dimensions at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) School of Natural Resources (SNR).
Further down the typical list of reasons people fish, he said, is consumption, which brings us to something that has proven challenging to decipher about anglers. When they reel in a fish, will they throw it back or not, and why?
Answering questions like that is one reason why, over the past decade, anglers at 24 of Nebraska's water bodies have come to expect visits from blue-shirted UNL researchers waiting for them by boat ramps to conduct surveys about their fishing habits.
It's where the angler gets to participate in the management process. Their voice gets to be heard. They get to engage.
"We were at the rural lakes so much, there were a lot of anglers that enjoyed interacting with the personalities out there," said Mark Kaemingk, research assistant professor with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in the School of Natural Resources. "They figured that they could share their experience, whether it be positive or negative."
The university-led surveys differ in scope from typical fishery-management creel surveys. Rather than focus on the habits anglers display at a single lake, they shifted to a regional level, with Nebraska Game and Parks providing funding for the project.
One thing the researchers said they have discovered is that many Nebraska anglers pick their favorite fishing holes and base their fishing habits off of the conditions at those lakes. When the water level was lowered at the Red Willow Reservoir in an effort to ease pressure on the dam there, three years passed before the researchers saw a drop in fishing effort. Boaters instead became bank anglers.
The historic view has been that anglers are mobile and will travel anywhere that has a good fish report, said Kevin Pope, unit leader of the U.S. Geological Survey–Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
While expert anglers often head to wherever the largemouth bass or walleye are biting, Chizinski said, "the prevalence of the 'anything angler' is huge, and that's a lot different than what we expected. We expected a lot of anglers to be targeting specific species. But most, it's 'Whatever bites my hook."
Kaemingk said Game and Parks has worked in concert with the researchers—as well as with nearby communities and economic development groups—and adapted both marketing and management strategies, big- and small-based, on the survey results. Knowing that larger lakes that allow for fast boating are within an hour from Conestoga Lake, the commission began enforcing a fishing-friendly 5-mile per hour speed limit at the recently restocked reservoir. Kaemingk said that there is a lot of information coming from the survey responses that could be used to improve quality of life across Nebraska's fishing areas, and that Game and Parks is using it.
"They want information to help them make decisions on what amenities they need to put in or upgrade, from how many parking spots to how many boat ramps to how many restrooms, or if a fish-cleaning station is needed," Kaemingk said. Meanwhile, communities have used the data to market fishing opportunities and amenities, in hopes that will also drive visitation to hotels, restaurants and other local businesses.
As for why an angler would keep or throw back a fish, the surveys have helped researchers key in on five variables—fish size, total number of the same species an angler already caught, residence zip code, distance traveled and time fished. A data-driven map included in one of the research team's studies shows that rural, western Nebraskans are more likely to hold on to a fish than anglers who call more populous counties in eastern and southeastern Nebraska home. Their participation in the UNL-led creel surveys is helping to tell the story of fishing in Nebraska, while also improving the state of it in the process.
"There was a Twitter discussion recently about whether creel surveys are citizen science," Chizinski said. "It's where the angler gets to participate in the management process. Their voice gets to be heard. They get to engage."
"They're part of the data collection process," Kaemingk said.
"And I think many of them value that," Pope added.