The fish emerge long before the flowers in Michigan. While the rest of the country celebrates spring in pink dogwoods, our state buzzes it in with the sound of a screaming reel.

A fair trade, in all. Some trout are prettier than flowers, and soon they will be rising in Hemingway country, bubbling up a brouhaha nearly five years in the making.

Changes to Upper Peninsula brook trout regulations are at the center of the controversy, and inconsistency in the way regulations are made are being questioned.

In 2012, Natural Resources Commission members J.R. Richardson, John Madigan, and John Matonich of the Upper Peninsula asked the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to increase the bag limit from five brook trout to 10 across the UP.

The goal, said Matonich, was to attract more anglers. He recalls a childhood when kids raced to streams on their bikes every weekend at sunrise. Today, those areas are overgrown with weeds and no one seems to be fishing them. Tourism is good for the area.

“It would be really nice to get smaller creeks used again,” said Matonich.

With no baseline data, it was imperative to learn whether doubling the take would affect the quality of fishing. The DNR commissioned a study from 2013-2017 on multiple U.P. rivers which would have a 10 bag limit and controls with a five bag limit. They hypothesized that an increased bag limit would have minimal effect on population and increase harvest opportunities as well as angler participation.

They also mined for baseline data and changes via electrofishing on-site creel surveys.

Though a 2011 survey showed that most anglers preferred the current brook trout limits, the DNR had to set up another.

The NRC has set up some strict standards for regulation changes. They wouldn’t consider antler permit restrictions unless the majority of the public wanted them. It seemed unlikely that brook trout changes would go through without similar support.

The survey included out-of-state anglers who fished for brook trout in the UP, as well as upper and lower peninsula brook trout anglers. Most said that increasing the brook trout limit would have no effect on their participation, but nearly a fourth said they would increase fishing at a river with a higher bag limit. About 10% said they would fish less on those rivers, anticipating that higher bag limits could lead to fewer fish.

In 2013, the DNR immediately changed the regulations on five different rivers to a 10-fish limit. Two years later, they added three more. They also surveyed some control streams.

Several of the rivers didn’t work out, but the Upper Tahquamenon and the East Branch Tahquamenon offered a powerful, comprehensive survey. The Yellow Dog River was called a control stream, but as they gathered data from different sample sites, it was all unusable for comparison. The smaller Bryan Creek and Two Mile also paired to ultimately give the DNR four mostly complete data sets with two controls and two experiments.

In both scenarios, the one that had a bag limit of 10 decreased in fish quantity and size and the controls went up. The controls had lower fish density initially, but they ended up with more fish than those fished with larger bag limit.

The DNR’s hypothesis was incorrect. The majority of the public preferred regulations to remain the same.

The role of the NRC is to be a watchdog, kind of like an informal appeals court for science-based fish and wildlife management. They bridge the gap between what the scientists want and the public wants. Their charge is to oversee and ensure science-based management. Nonetheless, in the most recent resolution, the NRC asks DNR Fisheries to authorize a 10 brook trout limit on Type 1 (small) steams, which constitute around 90% of the UP’s inland waterways. It also asks the DNR to exempt any streams that they think couldn’t handle the increased limit.

Matonich said he would consider a lesser increase in trout bag limits and perhaps some efforts toward providing anglers better access.

Michigan Trout Unlimited, a chapter of the grassroots organization that aims to conserve, protect and restore coldwater fisheries and watersheds, doesn’t see it that way,

“The public doesn’t want it, and the science doesn’t support it. Why are they still considering it?” asked Michigan Trout Unlimited executive director Bryan Burroughs.