A creel survey is a long-time fisheries management tool. Recreational anglers are asked a series of questions about what is in their “creel,” a word that refers to the woven basket that freshwater fishermen traditionally used to hold their catch.
To conduct a creel survey, a fisheries employee talks with anglers out in the field, usually at water access points, and records numbers of species caught, whether they were retained or released, and the time spent fishing. These data are used to estimate the total catch and effort for recreational fisheries in order to manage the harvest. Regions that have active stocking programs pay particular attention to angler returns in relation to dollars spent.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) stocks seven million trout a year. Creel surveys have been carried out on regional lakes since the 1950s, but they require a paid employee.
“Unfortunately in an environment where we are becoming more resource-limited these positions become difficult to fund,” says ODFW fish biologist Kyle Bratcher. “However, this information is still important and we needed to find a way to continue to assess our stocked trout fisheries.”
Solution? Pay the anglers to fish!
Modeled after a successful program in Idaho called “Tag-You’re It,” Oregon has developed the “Tag Team” program. A number of stocked fish are fitted with special plastic tags. Anglers are asked to report catches of all tagged fish. The Tag Team rewards anglers $50 to return specially marked tags and report on their fishing experience. Data from non-reward tags is also collected through angler interest and cooperation.
Press releases, signs at water bodies and advertising encourage fishermen to participate. They can send in their data by phone, on-line or regular mail to the ODFW office.
“From our perspective this was a great way to get anglers involved in fisheries management,” says Bratcher. “We also gained information on where people are from and got to have a lot of personal communications with the anglers.”
A percentage of fish planned for stocking are marked with FLOY tags before being released. Bratcher says it is quick and easy. Three or four hatchery employees can process up to 400 fish in a couple of hours. They are held over night in a raceway to be released the next day.
Popular Wallowa Lake in Oregon receives nearly 40,000 stocked trout a year, 38,000 “legal” size fish (8 inches) and 2000 “trophy” fish weighing up to two pounds. A “Tag Team” pilot evaluated the stocking program in 2014.
ODFW tagged and released a total of 1816 legal fish; 76 of those were tagged for the $50 reward. As well, 170 tagged trophy fish went out, with 14 carrying the reward tags. At the end of the program 448 legal fish tags were returned with 42 anglers receiving the reward. 53 trophy tags came back, with eight rewards.
“The main thing we’re looking at is the percentage of stocked fish that were caught,” explains Bratcher. “We were also able to look at how many of those fish were kept. At Wallowa Lake we were also looking at movement of the fish to give us an idea how they were redistributing themselves in the lake.”
“The information we gained is very valuable relative to the effort we expelled,” says Bratcher. There are downfalls however. “We don’t get information on angler effort which is important for economic analysis and we did have some issues with the completeness of the data. That is somewhat expected since we had anglers collecting the information for us, but the sample size was large enough it didn’t really cause us any problems.”
Was the program a success? “Very much so,” says Bratcher. “Overall implementing these projects is very efficient in terms of biologist time and money.” He says the cost of running three pilot programs was around $10,000. That would cover the cost of a typical creel survey for a couple of months.
— Tom Walker