MS Creel Project Q&A

In preparation for the release of the 2016 Creel Project data, we decided that a Q&A session with Minnesota Steelheader VP NMF was in order. We want to make sure people understand what it is, and how their creel report submissions are being used.

Q: What is the Minnesota Steelheader Creel Project? 
A: The creel project is a non-scientific survey of voluntarily submitted angler catch data. We are gathering information about North Shore steelhead fishing, analyzing it, then providing that information back to anglers; hopefully in a way that is useful and meaningful to steelhead fishing. The Project provides information both about how the current-year migration went, as well as painting a historical picture of North Shore steelhead returns based on a set of research questions.

Q: When you say, "Non-scientific", what does that mean?
A: It only means that we don't employ the strictly rigid scientific controls which would be part of any study conducted say by the Minnesota DNR fisheries section. We do however apply traditional scientific methodology to the Project. In other words we ask a question, do research, construct hypotheses, test them, analyze the data and draw conclusions, then communicate our results back to you.  We rely heavily on angler submissions, fisheries research papers, historical adult and juvenile trap research and data from multiple States, MN PCA bio-station data, and a combination of USGS, MN DNR Cooperative Stream Gaging and NRRI at UMD (Lake Superior Streams.Org) hydrologic data. We also built our own application to assist with compiling hydrologic measurements and statistical creel data.

Q: What is the theory behind the Creel Project?
A: Part of our mission as an organization is to inform and educate.  We can answer questions verbatim all day long from the current fisheries research if you want, the trick though is aligning those findings with actual data, then presenting it in such a way as to be useful from a steelhead fishing perspective.  Some of the questions are those we receive every year from newer steelhead anglers, steelhead 101 if you will. Then there is the list of what you might call the advanced course.  We don't have enough data yet, so we're still several years out from the quantum steelheading course.  Our hope is that the charts and information we provide are simple and intuitive enough for the newer steelheader, but also provide information at a deeper level for more experienced steelheaders. A kind of all-in-one, multi-layered conversation so to speak with respect to the charts we produce.

Q: Do you have any concerns about publishing this data?
A: Absolutely. As an organization, MS is mindful of the dangers presented in this day of instant information, social media, web access etc. There's no question those kinds of things can drive on-stream pressure. The trick is to find the balance between information and education, and there are challenges with that.  People have stated that this is one of the reasons they don't submit creel reports which is unfortunate.

Q: Why do anglers opposes submitting catch data?
A: The concern among steelheaders is that MS is posting their real-time creel reports which creates excessive angling pressure on a given stream. At a glance this might appear to be the case, but we do several things to mask the underlying data, specifically for the Daily charts.  The only thing that is "live" in what we post are the streamflows and temperatures, everything else is simply a trend in angling reports; success is either trending upwards or downwards.

Q: And how does masking the data help?
A: By way of example, the regional Daily charts for Lower, Mid and Upper Shore we post in the period before the runs start, are really designed to illustrate the relationship between current stream conditions and kamloops/steelhead presence or absence in the streams. This can give you an idea as to the numbers present as well. The information presented is based on findings from both DNR fisheries research as well as our own past creel data. 

The first mask so to speak is that that the information is only presented at the regional level, and these are fairly large: Lower, Mid and Upper Shore. Believe it or not, there is a high degree of variability there on a stream by stream basis, and we do not post individual streams by name. In other words, we talk about the geographic region, but the angler has to go find the fish and we don't point at any streams in particular. We also use hydrologic data from all available stations within that region. You can't assume that if you think the hydrologic data came from the Baptism, that it's the stream the creel reporting is coming from.

The second mask is applied to the actual creel data submitted by anglers. MS does not know which stream within a given region the report came from, we only see a date, the number of fish caught and Lower, Mid or Upper Shore in the submitted report. This spreads out the potential number of streams you would have visit to find fish, even if the posted chart shows increasing numbers for that region. The chart Is not connected to a single stream, it could be any of them because it is an aggregate of ALL streams in that region

IF we posted the actual report numbers rather than the trend, the charts would look very different and could potentially drive the pressure problems outlined above. What we actually do for this specific chart is to compile the creel reports, then produce a trend. For you math junkies out there, the trend is either a six or nine-point moving average depending on how deeply we want to mask the underlying reports. The overall effect is that we produce a chart which illustrates the relationship between kamloops and steelhead presence and activity in the streams based on what the overall regional temperatures and flow are doing during the pre-run period. The trend however shifts specific catch data dates to a degree, it is only after the run is complete that we unmask the data so you can see the relationships between flow, temperature and catch trend as it happened. Once we hit what we call the run-initiation threshold, we stop posting the trend. 

From a steelheading perspective, all this really does is to illustrate how far away, or how close we are to the steelhead run kicking off in a given region. This in turn is based on the questions we've been able to answer using first the DNR fisheries research to give us a starting point, then our own creel project data. The reason I said it's unfortunate that people don't want to post in fear of the issues outlined above, is that the data model isn't so much about analyzing current-year creel results, it is more about gathering long term data. While the current year data helps to understand where the run is at, particularly in the run-up to the first big push of fish, the whole point of the project is to develop a picture of what North Shore runs look like over time. This is the only way to get an accurate picture of what really happens. A significant goal of our data-collection gathering is to create that run picture in the context of steelhead fishing. Not just for MS, but for everyone.

Q: Are there any plans to address the concerns of anglers who would otherwise submit their creel reports, but do not do so now?
A: MS has been considering a number of changes to the reporting format. We would really like to capture creel reports year-round. We would also like to expand the species list from the current format to also include both pink and coho salmon. What we've found with brook trout, which below-barrier we are calling "presumed coasters", is that you get some surprising results when you compare that creel data to the steelhead data. Over and above that, I think the number one thing we could do to address angler concerns would be to include a check box on the reporting page. This check box would allow an angler to indicate whether their submission should be included or excluded from the early current-year reporting. That way, MS would still capture the data for historical analysis, and the angler could be assured that any potential issues with current year stream pressure are either mitigated or not a factor since their data would only be used in the "big picture" creel project reporting which is released only after the current year run is over.  

Q: What is the big picture? What are the main questions MS is trying to answer?  
A: The list is fairly extensive, but the main questions we would like to answer, again from a steelhead fishing perspective are:

  • Is there an overall run picture or timing for the North Shore?
  • Is there a specific run timing for each region of the shore?
  • How, and more importantly, why do these change from year to year?
  • Is there a typical run progression from south to north?
  • How is the run affected by an early or late start?
  • How is the run period affected by prolonged cold stream temps or a rapid warmup?
  • What is the influence of stream temperatures and flow on steelhead during each phase of the run?
    • What angling methods and presentations are most effective during the various phases
  • How long do the fish remain in the streams?
  • Are the run initiation temperature threshold research findings independently supported by the creel data?
  • What are the effects of low flow on the run?
  • Does the creel data support research findings on high flow limiting thresholds for upbound fish?
  • How far in advance of the steelhead do the kamloops begin upstream migration?  
Q: Are angler submissions to the creel project helping to answer these questions?
A: They are, we couldn't do this without them and we are really grateful when people take the time to submit reports.  We also couldn't do it without the background research and reporting by the Minnesota DNR fisheries biologists and technicians, so we really appreciate that work as well.

Q: What is the one question you can't answer?
A: Every once in a while someone asks whether we can predict the run. The answer is no, you can't look 2 years into the future and say it will start on X date for example. The best you can do, and this is where the historical data has provided some surprises, is to watch conditions starting just before ice-out. We have enough evidence now that there are key things you can look for to indicate what's coming. The problem you run into is that there's so much variability in year-to-year weather conditions, one good cold snap or late snowstorm puts everything into a holding pattern. In those cases, you just have to take a deep breath, and wait for those indicators to re-appear. What we do know based on the creel project is that once we hit what we call the temperature initiation threshold, things happen in a fairly orderly progression. To validate this, we went back in time to study data captured prior to the creel project to see if that was actually the case. Sure enough when we ran the numbers, 2015 looked much like 2005, which looked much like 1997 and so on. The dates varied widely for run start, peak and end, but the picture of what it looked like while it was happening was almost identical. Again, not a prediction, but once you know where you are at in a given run, you can adjust your steelheading tactics to maximize success; that is the important part.

Q: What do you do with creel project questions that have been answered?
A: You still have to gather new data and do the analysis, it would be a mistake to stop asking the question simply because you think you know the answer. Things change and we need to remain flexible, we'll stick with the best explanation to a question until the creel data or something else shows that we need a different answer. That kind of thing is pretty painless because you just incorporate the change into the data model, and we've done that a couple of times. The critical part becomes explaining the change and relating it to steelhead fishing so that it makes sense again to the angler. 

Q: Is there a goal to the creel project?
A: The short answer is steelheading success, but there's so much more to it in terms of being a conservation-minded organization.  People go through an evolution as steelhead anglers, but it all starts with success, and nothing gets people more engaged initially than holding on to a steelhead for dear life. The more you know, the more successful you become.  More success leads to more engagement and curiosity about things connected to steelheading. This opens up all kinds of different paths if you just follow that road: things like place attachment, travel, conservation, exploring new water, time with family and friends, making new friends, angler recruitment and retention, learning about the fishery, water chemistry, geology and how these are all inextricably linked in the North Shore fishery. All of this starts with simply observing the world around you; not through a computer or a smart phone, but because you're out in it.

Q: When can we expect to see the 2016 Creel Project results?
A: We've started analysis of the 2016 data in terms of all the regional charts. The heavy-duty analysis comes when we do all of the data-nesting for the historical data. We're hoping that will be completed within the next two weeks, it will really depend on whether any more Upper Shore reports trickle in. Absent that, we anticipate posting the last week of June.


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