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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Communities and resource managers must balance biological, economic and sociological effects of tournament fishing. © Patrick Schmalz
Communities and resource managers must balance biological, economic and sociological effects of tournament fishing.

© Patrick Schmalz

June 2006

Contemplating competition

Do fishing tournaments fit on Wisconsin's waters?

Patrick Schmalz


Hooked on competitive sport fishing
Fishing tournament characteristics
Do tournaments have a negative effect on fisheries?
Is there an upside to fishing tournaments?
Regulating the tournament fishing experience

Competitive fishing events have grown in popularity and spread across North America since the first organized bass tournaments were held in Alabama in 1967. Increasing numbers of participants led fisheries biologists to examine how and if tournaments change fish populations, disturb other people enjoying the water or change the nature of the angling experience. In Wisconsin, as in many other states, concern over competitive sport fishing is on the rise. Let's briefly examine the types of tournaments held here and how the Department of Natural Resources evaluates strategies for managing tournaments to protect our fish resources and reduce user conflicts.

Hooked on competitive sport fishing

Early fishing tournaments targeted largemouth and smallmouth bass. By 1978, an estimated 12,000 bass fishing tournaments were held nationwide; by 1990, anglers participated in more than 20,000 tournaments.

A few tournaments were held in Wisconsin in the 1970s, but they did not draw much attention from the Department of Natural Resources. A decade later, the increasing number of fishing tourneys and participants prompted a closer look. Results from studies conducted in the mid-'80s led the Natural Resources Board to set policies on tournaments in 1987. DNR fisheries managers began keeping records on the number of fishing tournaments in 1994, when a permitting system was created. From 1994 through 2002, the number of permitted fishing tournaments held annually in Wisconsin rose from 318 to 397. However, only larger tournaments require permits. Fisheries biologists estimate Wisconsin hosts 600-700 fishing events annually – similar to figures from Minnesota and Michigan, but five to six times more than in Iowa and Illinois.

Fishing tournament characteristics

We define a fishing "tournament" as an organized fishing event, in which anglers fish for prizes or recognition in addition to the satisfaction of catching fish. Wisconsin tournaments range in size from a few folks in jon boats up to a couple thousand anglers piloting a flotilla of watercraft. Events are held at all times of the year, in all regions of the state, in open water and on the ice. Each year, the Mississippi River pools host about 50 permitted tournaments and the Winnebago chain of lakes average about 30, the highest number of fishing tournaments respectively. Black bass are the most commonly targeted species followed by walleye, northern pike and muskellunge.

By nature, fishing tournaments focus on competition, but many Wisconsin tournaments are held as fund-raisers for various charities. Most Wisconsin fishing tournaments are organized locally and sponsored by fishing clubs, private businesses (resorts, bait shops), and local government organizations (chambers of commerce, tourism bureaus). Wisconsin hosts several national events, such as the Professional Musky Tournament Trail and the Professional Walleye Trail.

Several different tournament formats are used. For bass and walleye tournaments, fish typically are held in live wells by anglers, then brought to a central location at the end of the day to be weighed and subsequently released; the heaviest total weight wins. In many catch-and-release muskellunge tournaments, musky length is measured boatside by a witness. The witness may be a fishing partner in the same boat or a tournament official summoned to the angler's boat. Each fish is released immediately after it is measured; the longest total length wins. Other tournaments award prizes for the largest single fish caught. In still other tournaments, fish are harvested and displayed.

Do tournaments have a negative effect on fisheries?

Fisheries professionals and anglers alike share concerns about how tournament practices affect various fish species, the anglers who pursue them, and other surface water users. Fish caught in tournaments may die from handling, be displaced from familiar habitat, or experience more subtle biological effects like long-term changes in reproductive fitness as a consequence of being caught, held in a live well and released in a different part of a lake or river. Tournaments may create conflict between anglers or with other water users. Ethical conflicts may arise with people who object to introducing the notion of competition into the fishing experience. Let's take a look at these issues.

Biological effects – Many studies have examined whether bass held in live wells die before or during a tournament weigh-in (initial mortality) or expire after they are released (delayed mortality). A few studies also looked at walleye mortality following tournaments. Professor Gene R. Wilde at Texas Tech University in Lubbock examined results from 130 bass tournaments held in North America between 1972 and 1996. He concluded initial mortality declined from an average of approximately 20 percent to less than 7 percent due to more careful handling of the fish, but delayed mortality remained pretty steady over those years at 24-28 percent. In both cases, more fish died when water temperatures were higher and fewer fish died from larger tournaments, suggesting the fish handling methods used in larger events did a better job of keeping bass alive initially. Delayed mortality, however, appeared to increase with increasing tournament size. Other studies show fewer bass die at tournaments held farther north where the waters are a bit colder; this may reflect genetic and physiological differences between northern and southern strains of bass.

Somewhat more limited research shows a higher percentage of walleye die following tournaments that require anglers to bring in fish at day's end for a weigh-in at a central location. In the four studies I reviewed, total mortality of tournament-caught walleyes ranged from 0 to 80 percent, most fish expired before weigh-in, and both higher water temperatures and bad weather resulting in rough water conditions led to higher mortality rates.

There's little scientific research on musky tournament mortality, but most musky anglers know these fish do not do well when confined for extended periods. That's why catch-and-release is so common among musky anglers and why most musky tournaments choose to verify the catch and measure the fish for total length boatside, then release them immediately.

Tournament managers want to preserve the drama and thrill of weigh-ins while limiting fish mortality. © Wisconsin Bass Federation
Tournament managers want to preserve the drama and thrill of weigh-ins while limiting fish mortality.

© Wisconsin Bass Federation

Fisheries biologists also study longer-term consequences for individual fish and fish populations exposed to fishing tournaments. Studies indicate tournament mortality is a small share of the total mortality of a fish population, but biologists and tournament sponsors want to know if the way fish are handled and the way tournaments are structured can further reduce mortality, conserve fish and enhance quality fishing experiences.

What happens when fish are released at weigh-in stations located some distance away from the habitat they normally frequent? A 2002 study by Mark Ridgeway of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources showed only 37 percent of largemouth bass moved from their home returned to where they were captured; no fish displaced more than five miles returned. Do these results bode ill or well for bass? It depends: Bass may not be able to find their way once moved from their home, which could be detrimental if the fish are released in habitat with less than ideal conditions. Then again, bass may also be quite adaptable and choose to settle in suitable habitat near release sites.

Sociological effects – Fish aren't the only creatures affected by tournaments. Anglers and other water users also react to tournament activities. Competition for limited access to and space on the water can create animosity among tournament anglers, vacationers and shoreline residents. Excessive, unsafe boat traffic as a consequence of a tournament can cause friction among lake and river users.

Philosophical gulfs separate tournament anglers and other fishers. Those differences were paramount to the Natural Resources Board, which stated in its 1987 policy on tournament fishing: "Sport fishing should remain a true amateur sport which combines the pleasures and skills of angling with wildlife and scenic enjoyment, contemplation, and other subtle pleasures, not competition."

The Department of Natural Resources recognizes tournament fishing as a legitimate activity, but the "contemplation not competition" sentiment remains strong among many who enjoy recreation on Wisconsin's waters. The commercialization of natural resources and the notion of private gain from public resources is another common philosophical conflict between tournament anglers and other users. Such tension is not unique to the fishing tournament experience: The sheer variety of water recreation, from jet skis, ski boats and lake tours to on-shore festivals and events, means clashes are bound to occur between users. Alleviating on-water conflicts and balancing different types of water recreation are important goals in tournament planning and regulation.

Is there an upside to fishing tournaments?

User conflicts aside, fishing tournaments can have a positive impact on fish resources. Tournaments provide biologists with opportunities to gather fish population data without having to collect fish in sampling nets; the information helps biologists form a clearer picture of a lake or river's current ecological status. Tournaments also play a role in promoting sport fishing and conservation, both of which are vital to the future of Wisconsin's fishery. There's an economic dimension to tournaments, too – participants and spectators purchase food, lodging and supplies in local communities where tourneys are held, increasing income for area merchants and service providers. Out-of-state anglers introduced to Wisconsin's outdoor charms in a fishing tournament may return to enjoy other kinds of recreation, and help boost tourism through word-of-mouth.

Regulating the tournament fishing experience

The mix of biological and social concerns detailed above prompted many states, including Wisconsin, to develop regulations specific to tournament fishing. Wisconsin's program began with the 1987 board policy, which in turn led to the creation of a tournament fishing committee consisting of DNR staff, anglers and other interested parties. On the committee's recommendations, the permit system was instituted in 1994 to gather information on the nature and extent of tournament fishing in the state. The definition of "tournament" was narrowed to "any organized fishing activity, on any water of the state where competition is the primary intent, where prizes are awarded which, in total, have a value of more than $500, where the total number of participants is greater than 40 individuals or 20 boats, where the waters to be fished are identified by name by the sponsor, and where participants are required to fish on the same dates." Any event that didn't meet that definition didn't need a permit. The permits were free of charge, but did carry a few restrictions, including prohibiting tournaments on the opening weekend of fishing season in early May. There were no restrictions on the number and frequency of tournaments that could be held on a given waterbody, the size of those tournaments, or specific conditions related to fish handling or sponsor training.

Further authority to regulate tournaments required legislative action. Bills in 1999 and 2001 died in committee, but a 2003 proposal was passed and enacted in April 2004. The new legislation contained three major components: It provided the Department of Natural Resources with specific regulatory authority over fishing tournaments; it launched a bass fishing tournament pilot program; and it established an advisory committee to aid in developing rules and in carrying out the bass tournament pilot.

The advisory committee, which represents both tournament and non-tournament interests, is actively discussing what permits might be warranted depending on the size of the lake or river on which an event is planned, the number of participants, methods for measuring the catch, limits on the number of tournaments on a given water, differences between open-water and ice-fishing regulations, strategies to reduce the transport of invasive species, and setting fees to better reflect tournament monitoring costs and help support research into strategies for safe handling and releasing of tournament-caught fish. The Department of Natural Resources plans to have new rules in place by April 1, 2007.

The bass fishing tournament pilot program requires DNR to issue four permits a year in 2005 and 2006 to bass fishing tournaments that will allow participants to fish for and "cull" bass. A common practice in fishing tournaments in many states, culling lets anglers continue to fish after reaching their bag limit, and to replace fish in their live well with larger fish. Under current Wisconsin fishing regulations, any fish taken into an angler's possession and not immediately released must be considered part of that angler's daily bag limit. Organizers of large tournaments have avoided hosting their events in Wisconsin due to our bag limit regulations.

Evaluating the pilot events to determine the extent of biological, social and economic consequences requires expertise from a variety of disciplines. DNR staff will work with the Wisconsin Cooperative Fishery Research Unit from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to estimate fish mortality rates associated with the pilot tournaments; the researchers will also simulate bass culling to specifically target the mortality associated with this practice. DNR researchers will survey pilot participants and others to explore their perceptions and attitudes toward tournament fishing in general and culling in particular.

The potential economic benefit to be gained from large bass tournaments provided much of the impetus behind the bass tournament pilot project. To assess the economic impact of big bass tournaments, the DNR is working with the University of Wisconsin Department of Urban and Regional Planning to gather data related to tournament angler and spectator expenditures in host communities.

With appropriate communication, cooperation and research, tournament fishing can maintain its niche as an alternative form of angling without harming Wisconsin's fishery. Opportunities for competition may induce more people to take up an outdoor activity for which Wisconsin is justly famous – and that slight edge can help secure the future of the sport of fishing.

Patrick Schmalz is a DNR fisheries biologist who works on emerging policies and treaty fishing issues.