DNR creel clerks collect angler data to aid in fisheries management

Devils Lake anglers Mark and Steve Dubuc chat with DNR creel clerk Shawn Spilak.

July 9, 2015

Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers depend on data when deciding where to stock fish and when setting fishing regulations. Over the years, they've found that one of the best sources of fisheries data is the anglers themselves.

Since 1985, the DNR has conducted a regular creel census at many of the state's most popular fishing locations, finding out what anglers are doing.

"The main things we want to know are their catch rates and what species they caught," explained Tracy Kolb, a fisheries biologist who's run the DNR's creel census program since 2008. "We also ask their zip code - we want to see how far they'll travel to fish - and their ages because different age groups use different resources."

DNR creel clerk Eric Morrow interviews Detroit River angler Tom Wilson in Wyandotte.Michigan has about 35 fisheries assistants (commonly called "creel clerks") working around the state at Great Lakes ports and on inland lakes and streams. They regularly conduct surveys at some waters and intermittently at others; some are year-round, others are in the rotation only during the open-water season.

"We interview anglers about their trips and ask about tackle and techniques," Kolb said. "We also ask resource-related questions at some places that are determined by local biologists, like, 'Do you like the stocking program?' or 'Is there a good mix of species?'

"The data we collect and the things we do with the data are not theoretical - they're real. They're practical and interesting. And it's dynamic; things are always changing."

Kolb designs surveys and creel schedules to meet statistical sampling criteria and to meet the data needs of the DNR Fisheries Division's basin coordinators. How surveys are conducted varies by the nature of the fishery.

DNR creel clerk Eric Morrow weighs a walleye from the Detroit River.Mike Tower, a 26-year-old fisheries assistant in his third year of taking creel census, works on Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. During the open-water months, his beat stretches from Quanicassee to Caseville. During ice-fishing season, he works from Sebewaing to Harbor Beach.

"Where I go depends on the calendar," said Tower, who has a degree in fisheries and wildlife management from Lake Superior State University. "On even-number dates, I start on the west side of the area and work east. On odd-number dates, I start on the east and go west. You try to cover it all to get an idea of what's going on."

Tower visits the boat launches and harbors, interviewing anglers after they've fished. Besides recording catch data, he also weighs and measures fish and takes samples - spines from walleyes, spines or scales from perch, scales from salmon, and jaws from lake trout - from amenable anglers. The samples are used to age fish to help biologists determine growth rates.

Tower loves his job.

"I could not believe you could get paid to do something like this," he said.

Reuben Peterson, in his 23rd year as a fisheries assistant, surveys Keweenaw Bay, working out of L'Anse and Baraga some days, Traverse Bay and South Portage entry on others.

In the summer months, he stations himself at boat launches. In the winter, Peterson's out on the ice on a snowmobile asking about the catch and taking samples of the trout and salmon species and perch. He loves his job, too.

"I've become friends with thousands of people that I've met out on the ice or at the marina," he said. "Some days are rough, but it would be really hard to give up a job like this. If you love your job it's not really work, is it?"

Peterson created a pilot program using remote cameras to get accurate data on how many boats are out during the fair-weather months. "Sometimes when I'm traveling from port to port, boats come in and I'm losing interviews," he said. "The more information you can get, the better."

Accurate participation data is important, Kolb said, because the DNR uses it to figure out approximate harvests.

"We sample a portion of the anglers and assume they're representative of the population, and expand the numbers out to times and days we're not there," she said. "By sticking to a strict sampling protocol, we can ensure the range of estimates we come up with falls within 3 percent of the real value."

On vast bodies of water - Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie, for instance - the DNR uses aerial surveys to determine how many anglers are out on the water. That's happening this year as part of an international creel survey on the Detroit River, developed in conjunction with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the United States Geological Survey, which is funding aerial counts.

"We'd like to know the total amount of effort because we haven't creeled the river internationally ever and the last time the Michigan DNR creeled the Michigan side was 10 years ago," Kolb said. "There's a lot of activity there and we want to characterize it so we develop proper management programs."

Eric Morrow works the American side of the Detroit River. A native Detroiter who spent five years as a creel clerk at Lake Superior, Morrow splits his time between the upper river - four sites in Detroit and one in River Rouge - and the lower river, which has six creel sites from Ecorse to Gibraltar. He says he's been pleasantly surprised by how willing the anglers are to participate; the Lake Superior anglers were more tight-lipped.

"Detroiters are willing to share their information," said Morrow. "I get a lot of 'We appreciate you being out here' and 'We appreciate the work you're doing.'"

Morrow, who has a biology degree from Oakland University, says he takes perch and walleye samples, but he makes sure he gets the whole story.

"We're looking for information about everything," he said. "I'm writing down as much information on freshwater drum and white bass as I am walleye. I take weights and measurements for white bass, smallmouth, northern pike or any muskie that comes in. When the white bass started mixing in with the walleyes, people would come in and say, 'All I got was white bass,' and kind of shrug it off. But we want that information, too."

While many creel clerks spend their time at launch ramps, Shawn Spilak spends most of his days in a boat, cruising Lake Hudson and Devils Lake in Lenawee County.

Because so many anglers live on the lake - or access it through private property - he won't get the whole story if he stays at the ramp. Spilak says he's careful that he approaches anglers from the right direction so as not to disturb the fishing. And because Devils Lake has a lot of bass fishermen, Spilak says, "I try not to talk to the bass tournament guys while they're fishing. I'll wait until they get back to the launch."

Spilak, who has a degree in environmental science and has worked creel at Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Erie in the past, says the anglers he surveys on the inland lakes are pleasant and interested in what he's doing.

"You get a different group of guys than you do on the Great Lakes, guys with 12-foot boats who live a mile up the road," He said. "They're not in as big a rush. A lot of times the anglers ask more questions than I do."

That's another important function of creel clerks - simply interacting with the public.

"There are a lot of people who are very, very nice, very helpful, very friendly," Tower said. "I would say 99 percent of people are helpful. There are one or two people a season that are difficult; a very tiny amount of the people I speak with. In fact, there are certain guys who pull right up to me and offer me samples."

Clerks say there are other benefits to the job.

"I get to see what lures are working, what colors," Spilak said. "I get a lot of information about what's going on for myself. It's almost like cheating."

Learn more about Michigan's creel survey work on the DNR website www.michigan.gov/fishing.