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Ludington Daily News, Bait debate: Some seek tighter PM River regulations by Brian Mulherin

Bait debate: Some seek tighter PM River regulations by Brian Mulherin

A group of guides, anglers and landowners along the Pere Marquette River has been lobbying the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment to do more to protect spawning salmon and steelhead in the Pere Marquette River, which they believe to be in steady decline.

The way the group chose to try to protect those fish was to ask the DNRE for special “gear restriction” regulations on the river from Gleason’s Landing downstream to Walhalla Road. Gear restrictions can ban live or natural bait or can outlaw everything but fly fishing on a given stretch of water. The DNRE declined, spelling out its reasoning in a report released this week.  Anglers will have a chance to “wade in” on the topic — and the fate of several other rivers — at a series of public meetings in June.

“Although there is much public support for more gear restrictive regulations in the watershed, there is similar strong public opposition to additional gear restrictions on the river,” the DNRE report states, noting that catch-and-release is prevalent on the river.

The DNRE report also states “a majority of anglers of the Pere Marquette fishing river sections outside the no-kill water prefer to have the option of angling with a variety of gear types that might include bait such as spawn or wigglers as well as with artificial flies or lures.

Kevin Morlock, a river guide who spearheaded what he called a “grassroots” effort to get special “no bait” regulations on the river, said he believes this has been among the worst years for steelhead fishing he can remember in more than 20 years on the river. The Pere Marquette gets no stocked steelhead and he believes because of that, the naturally reproducing fish deserve some special protection.

“We put an effort in to see if we could make some arguments toward the PM because really we have no other alternative, if it’s true that the fishery is declining,” Morlock said. “Wild fisheries shouldn’t be treated like hatchery fisheries.”

Morlock said there’s no hard science backing his claim that the fishery is in decline, but he believes that’s all the more reason to tread carefully in what is allowed on the P.M.

The Pere Marquette Watershed Council board voted to nominate the new stretch for gear restrictions, citing the popularity and “proven qualities” of the flies only water.

Ron Henrickson, an avid live bait fisherman for trout in the lower P.M.

“I’d hate to discourage anybody from any method they use that’s legal right now,” Henrickson said. “My grandson would probably not want to go if he could only fish flies.

“The next step will be catch-and-release-only, and I like to eat fish. You know, a lot of fly fishermen who practice catch-and-release kill fish, too. They might not know it, but they do.

Henrickson was referring to studies that a percentage of fish caught and released can die from the stress, even when handled carefully.

One of Henrickson’s concerns is loss of access for wading anglers. One of the Pere Marquette’s more popular access sites during spring, early summer and fall is the Taylor Road access, also called “the Maple Leaf.” If gear was restricted, the anglers who use spawn and worms would no longer be permitted to fish there by those methods.

“There’s more bait anglers than they know,” Henrickson said.

Morlock’s letter-writing campaign to DNRE officials and state lawmakers was supported by the Ludington and Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.  Several lawmakers have also been contacted.

Morlock said in spite of that, he’s not optimistic that the DNR will put the stretch from Gleason’s Landing to Walhalla Road into the gear restricted category.  Morlock said it’s unfortunate because the number of restricted miles in the state is only revisited once a decade or so.

Paul Drewry, an avid fly angler who also casts crankbaits to king salmon in the fall, supports the idea of more restricted miles of water.

“A group of guys in Walhalla have been driving that,” Drewry said. “I think it’s a great idea — not necessarily bait restrictions, but to restrict the take of spawning fish during the run, whether steelhead or salmon. The bottom line is we have a naturally producing river there and I’ve always wondered what a difference it would make if we were to protect those spawning fish.”

Drewry said he believes the restrictions on the Au Sable have helped its fishery and its reputation, making the area more desirable as a fishing destination.

“As a businessman, I kind of like that idea,” Drewry said.

But not all businessmen agree.  Bob Viglietti, owner of Pere Marquette Sport Center, said he doesn’t see how anyone but the guides pushing the issue are going to benefit.

“There’s no practical reason to make that stretch of water ‘no live bait.’ It’s not going to change the ecology, it’s purely money driven. Plus, it’s going to negatively affect my business.”

Aaron Persenaire, an avid steelhead angler from Ludington, said he doesn’t think restricting gear would accomplish much in the grand scheme of things.

“Personally, I would disagree with a new restriction, being that we already have a flies-only section on the river,” Persenaire said. “I’m not totally against a flies-only stretch on the river, but one is enough.”

Morlock said another aspect to adding gear restrictions might be to clean up the behavior on the river.

He noted there just aren’t as many run-ins with belligerent, territorial anglers on the upper “flies-only” stretches, even though there are more anglers present at times.

“All of our peak areas (on the lower river) during peak times are unwelcoming to families and visiting fishermen,” Morlock said. “When a family can’t go to a public fishing area during the best fishing times, you’ve got a major problem.”

Morlock said having more conservation officers enforce the rules would be nice, but he knows that’s not likely to happen in Michigan’s current economic state.

The local meetings, all at 7 p.m.,  are:
 MONDAY, JUNE 7, at the Bitely Conservation Club, 12016 Woodbridge (M-37) in Bitely.
 TUESDAY, JUNE 8, at the Crawford Au Sable Primary School Cafeteria, 306 Plum St., Grayling.
 THURSDAY, JUNE 10, at the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center, 6093 E. M-115, Cadillac.
 THE FULL list of meetings is available at www.michigan.gov/dnr.