Emotions flared April 26 when Sturgeon Bay’s Joint Parks and Recreation Committee/Board recommended changes to fishing-tournament rules as they relate to using the city’s facilities.
Should the recommendation be adopted by the Common Council, to take effect in 2024, use of the city’s launching ramps and other facilities for holding catch-and-release bass tournaments would be limited through June 30 to only the weigh-on-the-water variety, for which scales to weigh the fish on the anglers’ boats would be available at no cost.
Committee/board members discussed whether to require that rule year-round – given a concern about bass kept in live wells to be weighed on shore before being released having the potential to spread the Largemouth Bass Virus – but they agreed to limit it to the first six months of the year, to apply particularly during the time when smallmouth bass would be in the process of spawning.
That rule would prohibit city facilities from being used in May for the Sturgeon Bay Open Bass Tournament (SBOBT), which does not use a weigh-on-the-water format. Instead, it weighs fish taken to shore before releasing them back into the water in areas where they may or may not have been caught.
The change was advocated by committee/board member and District 5 alderman Gary Nault, who runs the weigh-on-the-water Sturgeon Bay Bass Tournament in May and also operates a fishing-guide service.
“We should be doing everything we can to protect the fishery,” he said.
Nault, who abstained from voting, said he was advised by the city attorney that he could speak on the proposed rule revisions but shouldn’t vote on them.
He said tournaments should use the best-management practices for the bass population to not interrupt the spawning process.
JJ Malvitz, who spoke before the committee/board representing the SBOBT, called the proposed rule changes a “targeted attack on live, weigh-in format tournaments with inconclusive evidence surmising that this type of tournament impacts smallmouth-bass populations in [the bay of] Green Bay.”
“Banning live, weigh-in format tournaments will be an eternal scar in the angling community,” he said. “No tournament, no anglers will come here and spend their money. It’s a stigma you do not want.”
The SBOBT will be headquartered this year at Sturgeon Bay’s Sawyer Park. Moving the headquarters out of the city limits – such as to Little Sturgeon, as in some past years – would be one way the SBOBT could continue to weigh the fish on shore after the proposed revisions would take effect, while also continuing to fish in the bay of Sturgeon Bay.
Malvitz said it’s not the role of the committee/board to manage a natural resource, which is the responsibility of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the entity that issues permits for fishing tournaments.
The committee/board earlier this year forwarded the council an amendment to that recommendation suggested by municipal services director Mike Barker to limit the use of city facilities for holding catch-and-release bass tournaments in June to only the weigh-on-the-water variety. That wouldn’t have affected the SBOBT.
However, those who favored the weigh-on-the-water format objected to the revised wording, which they said didn’t go far enough, and the council referred the matter back to the committee/board.
Mark Holey, who previously worked as a fish biologist for the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the weigh-on-the-water variety of bass tournaments, which weigh the fish in the area where they are caught and release them immediately back into the water, is the “fish-friendliest format to hold these tournaments.”
“This type of format will eliminate some of the mortality that is occurring that you can’t measure under things like displacement,” he said. “Just because you release a fish and it swims away, doesn’t mean that it lives.”
The committee/board has been dealing with the issue since last fall. Opponents of new fishing-tournament rules, many of them bass-tournament anglers, filled the council chambers Sept. 28, 2022, when the committee/board held off taking action.
Some of them were on hand April 26 to speak during the public-comment period and also shouted out on occasion during the committee/board deliberations.
Jimmy Doering, a smallmouth-bass fishing guide from Sturgeon Bay, began to shout when he spoke during the public-comment period to object to the proposed rule changes.
“We would have been fine with June [to limit bass tournaments to the weigh-on-the-water format],” he said. “The tournaments that we fish aren’t in June. They’re in May. We love these fish more than you can imagine. I spent $115,000 on a boat to catch little fish. And do you know what I do with them? I let them go, because I want everyone to go out and catch them.”
Committee/board chair and District 1 alderwoman Helen Bacon then asked Doering not to speak as loudly.
“If you could just tone it down a little bit – your anger is [coming through],” she said.
Committee/board member Tom Hemminger objected to some in the audience speaking and making it difficult to hear the committee/board’s discussion, after which one audience member shouted, “You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
Bacon then stated, “Excuse me, would you like to leave?”
Those on hand in opposition to the weigh-on-the-water restriction left the council chambers after the committee/board voted to recommend that to the council.
City Administrator Josh Van Lieshout said the fishing-tournament rule revisions, which also include not issuing permits for walleye tournaments prior to May 15 unless a weigh-on-the-water format is used, will be up for final approval by the council at its June 6 meeting.