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Hooking injuries taking toll on North Platte fishing

New study spurs discussion of regulation changes for Wyoming’s popular Gray Reef, Miracle Mile fisheries

An angler displays a rainbow trout on the North Platte River. The red spot on its side is likely from hook damage. (Christine Peterson)

by Christine Peterson, WyoFile

The results from a recent study surprised even Matt Hahn, a biologist who has been monitoring fish in the North Platte River for nearly two decades. 

Almost a quarter of the river’s trout are seriously injured from fishing hooks, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department found after years studying fish in popular sections of the river.

Fish in some sections fared better than others, but Hahn fears catch-and-release fishing, a method generally considered a best practice for conservation, is taking a toll. 

The issue is more complicated than simply changing regulations on a river that supports a multi-million dollar guiding industry and thousands of recreational anglers. Any changes would require long, hard conversations among guides and outfitters, state officials, biologists and anglers. 

That conversation will start in a Game and Fish conference room at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Casper. 

“We’re at the point now where we need to figure out where we’re going to go with this,” said Hahn, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Casper regional fisheries supervisor. “There are a lot of options available.”

A popular river

The North Platte River isn’t a native trout fishery. Before dams like Seminoe, Pathfinder and Alcova, the river was a wide, free-flowing, flood-prone swath of Rocky Mountain runoff. The dams made tailwaters, and those tailwaters created perfect habitat for trout fishing. So away went the catfish and the sturgeon in the upper stretches and in came stocked rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. And for many years, few regulations governed the water.

Then in the mid-90s, fisheries officials realized the popularity of filling coolers with fish from the river was becoming unsustainable. 

About 43% of the trout from Gray Reef Dam to a section called Lusby were being taken home to eat each year, causing average fish sizes to drop.

In response, in 1998, Game and Fish created a new regulation. Anglers could only keep one fish, and it had to be longer than 20 inches, not an impossibly large fish in the North Platte River, but not the average size, either. 

An angler on the North Platte River. (Christine Peterson)

Around the same time, the broader fly-fishing culture started to change. Anglers realized instead of catching and keeping fish, they could catch them and let them go, allowing them to continue living their lives and grow larger and larger. 

And it worked. Fish numbers increased in the river, and Game and Fish mostly stopped stocking fish. It turned into a wild fishery —  not a native fishery, but a self-sustaining one — and the popularity of sport fishing swelled. 

Recreational anglers, those wading or floating on a Saturday or Sunday or occasionally after work during the week, increased. Commercial guiding exploded.

In 1995, Game and Fish recorded 230 boats floating from Gray Reef to Government Bridge on the North Platte. About 22% of them were nonresident anglers and likely few or none of them were commercial outfitters. Between February and December 2022, 4,424 boats floated that same stretch. More than 90% of them were nonresident anglers and 89% were commercial trips, according to data from Hahn. 

The Miracle Mile, a section of river above Pathfinder Reservoir, has similar trends. No boats floated that stretch in much of 2001, but by 2022, almost 2,000 boat trips went down the river and 96% were commercially guided.

“We were cognizant of that increase, and so around 2019, we decided to look at fish in the Miracle Mile,” Hahn said. “About half the fish over 12 inches displayed some level of hooking injury.”

An inevitable toll

In 2020, Hahn gathered other fisheries biologists and came up with a plan to see if the scarring on the Miracle Mile was unique to that section or applied to the rest of the river. 

For three years, biologists used mild electric current at 15 places between the Miracle Mile and Glenrock to momentarily stun fish but otherwise leave them unharmed. Biologists pulled stunned fish out of the water and checked them for injuries. Each fish got a rating between 0 and 4, the difference between no hooking injury at all and one so severe the fish would likely soon die.

The biologists found that between the Miracle Mile and Government Bridge — the most popular sections of the river — about 20% to 25% of the fish had severe enough injuries to their gills, body cavity or eyes that they may not survive. 

At the same time, crews performed similar surveys on other popular Wyoming rivers and found that this rate of injury was particular to the Platte. Hahn guesses it’s in part because the river is fishable year-round, is close to major population centers and has significant commercial fishing pressure. The North Platte near Casper also has a reputation for being a blue-ribbon fishery, drawing anglers from around the world. 

What all of this new information means for fishing on the most popular sections of the Platte is the next puzzle. 

Regulations versus status quo

For Trent Tatum, co-owner of The Reef Fly Shop and North Platte Lodge, the answer feels pretty simple: Regulate the fishing tackle that’s most likely to create hook injuries. 

Most anglers use fishhooks with barbs, the nasty bits at the ends that keep them from slipping back out of a fish’s mouth. Barbs work great at keeping a fish on a line, but can tear portions of a fish’s jaw, face, stomach or even eyeball depending on where the hook lands.

An angler holds a Snake River cutthroat trout on the North Platte River. (Christine Peterson)

An increasing number of fisheries managers on rivers across the world require anglers to pinch the barbs on their hooks or use barbless hooks. Biologists could also permit fewer flies on fly fishing rigs. Each angler can currently use up to three “hooked devices” such as flies or artificial lures on the North Platte, giving fish plenty of options to slurp, but also creating more opportunities for hooking injuries. Tatum’s guides all pinch their barbs on the river, he said, and he encourages them to use fewer flies when possible. The guide service also prohibits fishing with a hook below a bead. Beads attract fish by looking like an egg, and when the fish strikes to gulp the bead, it slides down the line, hooking the fish in the mouth instead. But it can also lead to hooks snagging fish all over their faces. 

Tatum also wonders if there needs to be a change in fishing culture. Anglers surveyed on the Platte catch about 50,000 trout a year between the Gray Reef and Robertson Road, Hahn said. Biologists estimate only about 30,000 trout live in those stretches. That means on any given day, anglers are catching the same fish over and over. 

Maybe instead of high-fiving over 20 or 30-fish days and rowing back through a fish-filled run over and over again, Tatum said guides can spend time teaching clients another technique or try a stretch of water that’s a little less productive. 

“We’re all out there trying to make a living,” Tatum said. “But you don’t need to backrow a run 15 times and hammer the crap out of them.”

He also says it’s likely time to begin regulating the number of guides on the river, something the Wyoming Legislature has tried in the past with no success. 

But first, a conversation. Hahn isn’t ready to draft new regulations, yet. He wants everyone invested in the North Platte fishery  — the guides and outfitters and recreational anglers — to come together to hear the study’s findings. 

If anglers decide nothing should change, Hahn said the department will likely have to begin stocking the river again to make up for mortalities from fishing, something Tatum said few people who know and love the river would want. 

“I would be shocked if any outfitter or guide in our community would agree with that,” Tatum said. “We can fix this. It’s a good time for everybody to self-reflect and say, ‘what can we do?’”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.