Despite color coding, bolded words, symbols and maps, Wyoming’s fishing regulations can be confusing. Even David Zafft, fisheries management coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, agrees.Take drainages, for example. Each stream fits in a certain drainage, but it might be hard for a new angler, or an angler new to an area, to figure out where the stream belongs.
“If you want to fish, say a stream in the Wyoming Range by Pinedale, then you go to the regulations. We have it broken out to different parts of the state, and the Wyoming Range would be in Area 4. And we have drainage exceptions there,” Zafft said. “If you’re in Lake Hattie, and there’s a sign that says Lake Hattie, it’s simple. It might be hard for an angler to determine if the stream has any special regulation. It’s hard for an angler to know which drainage a stream lies within.”
But even for those who are new to fishing in Wyoming, rest assured there is rhyme and reason to the department’s regulations, Zafft said.
For the newbie angler, or the veteran fisherman who maybe never really knew why a regulation was the way it was, Zafft offered a primer on the Department’s rules.
Why here and not there?
Most of Wyoming’s streams – the ones that aren’t right below a dam – are managed as wild fisheries. This means most of the game fish in them, usually trout, are not stocked by Game and Fish. At one time many were planted there—all trout species with the exception of cutthroat trout aren’t native to Wyoming – but since then they’ve reproduced on their own. As a result, fisheries biologists are generally much more conservative in the number of fish they allow anglers to keep.
“We generally say only three fish on streams and one fish over 16 inches — that’s to restrict the take of spawning size adults,” Zafft said.
Lakes, on the other hand, are largely managed for fish to be caught and kept. Biologists monitor the fishery by catch rates and sampling the water. Fishing is generally considered good if anglers catch a fish every 2 hours or so.
“It’s a very small percentage of anglers who are catching the vast majority of the fish,” he said.
If you check the signs near lakes or popular river access points, you may see restrictions on bait. Anglers can’t use live bait on the Gray Reef section of the North Platte River, for example. But worms and even live minnows are allowed on places like Keyhole Reservoir.
The difference, Zafft said, is the kind of opportunity that anglers would like to have. Most fishermen at Gray Reef are there to catch and release. They are only allowed to keep one fish, and it must be over 20 inches, and most rarely do that. Places like Boysen, on the other hand, are managed for people to catch and keep their finds.
“Each of the waters in the state we have a management strategy for. It might be to provide a neat fishing opportunity for a large trophy sized fish or a unique fish like tiger trout or muskie or splake or golden trout, or might be to provide a fast catch rate of a 12 inch fish,” Zafft said. “They’re adapted for each water to provide an different opportunity.”
Game and Fish does consider what anglers would like to see for a specific water. If enough requests are filed asking for no live bait or a closure during the spring spawn, for example, biologists will consider those possibilities.
“If we hear enough of it and it doesn’t fly in the face of science (like we just are absolutely sure something won’t help make a difference or will be detrimental) we will float a proposal to the entire public during the regulation change process and see if it’s what people want,” he said. “We are always balancing public desires with the management desires for productive capacity of habitats.”
If it is something the public wants, the rules then go to the Game and Fish Commission and ultimately the governor. And if at all possible, Zafft said, fisheries managers try and make those regulations books a little less complicated.