A pair of six-pound catfish dangled from a rope near the Coralville Lake spillway last week while a trio of anglers chatted at the overlook above about this season’s prime early fishing conditions and the loot they’ve already snagged.
The avid anglers said they’ve been out with their poles almost every day since February with the unseasonably pleasant weather, and they’ve managed to pull in some real beauties — try 40- to 50-pound Flatheads.
“We’ve caught some nice ones,” Wayne Witte, 75, of Oxford, said and then added with a laugh, “but don’t broadcast it. They’ll all be down here. We’re gonna be in trouble.”
Judging by the number of fishing licenses the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has sold through March, this early season’s ideal fishing conditions are no secret.
The DNR sold 100,072 fishing licenses in the first quarter of the year — surging past early season sales in every other year in the past decade by 16 percent or more. This year’s sales through March are 26 percent above last year’s sales through the same period.
The boom in license sales has boosted revenue for the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which is used — among other things — to protect and enhance fish and wildlife populations across the state.
The trust fund has been shrinking in recent years as the cost of doing business rises, and mounting expenses have Iowa due for a fishing license fee increase, according to DNR officials. But this season’s strong license sales will ease some of the pressure and enable more projects until the Legislature approves a rate hike, said Joe Larscheid, DNR chief of fisheries.
“The boost in license sales is critical,” Larscheid said. “The more money we have in the trust fund, the more new initiatives we can take.”
The last time the DNR landed a fee increase was eight years ago in 2004 when the cost rose from $10.50 to $17.50 — not including vendor fees. Larscheid said the DNR will broach the subject with the Legislature in the next few years “because we have to.”
“But the boost this year is helping us to do business until we get lucky enough to get another license increase,” he said.
Mike Steuck, supervisor for the DNR’s fisheries in northeast Iowa, said this year’s early sales surge appears to be mostly weather-related as Iowans have experienced above average temperatures for months. Iowa’s fisheries are open year-round, he said, but there are more open-water fishermen than ice anglers.
“I also bought my license early because the weather was so nice and the trout streams were still fishable,” Steuck said.
Anyone planning to toss their line in a public fishery must get a new license every year, and licenses are made available for the next year on Dec. 15. It remains to be seen whether the early boost in sales will drive up fishing license revenue for the entire year or whether interest will level off.
The DNR is working to sustain the strong sales through a “significant” social media effort that includes updates on its Facebook page, which has about 3,100 “likes,” and tweets on its Twitter account, which has about 5,000 followers.
“Good spring weather makes anglers happy, and we are riding a hot streak,” according to one recent DNR tweet.
Awareness around the need for fishing licenses — and regulations over how much a person can keep depending on the type of fish and body of water — also has increased in recent years thanks to strong enforcement and education efforts, Steuck said.
“What we are trying to do is keep people from being a fish hog — keeping more than they can use,” he said. “People will do that. When the fishing is good, they want to keep, keep, keep.”
The number of citations issued for fishing-related offenses — including fishing without a license and keeping too much — has decreased over the years, said Jason Sandholdt, an executive with the DNR’s law enforcement bureau. Officers wrote 1,310 tickets last year, compared with 2,594 in 2004, Sandholdt said.
Fishing license fee increases
1979: $4 to $6
1985:$6 to $8
1992:$8 to $10.50
2004: $10.50 to $17.50
Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources