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Illinois hunting and fishing

Dan Stephenson during last fall’s lake survey season. Stephenson is now asst. chief of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources division of fisheries. Photos by Chris Young.

Longtime fisheries biologist has new role

February 01, 2013 at 06:49 AM

The State Journal-Registerte

Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson isn’t hanging up his hip boots for good, but he is navigating a new role as assistant chief of fisheries, working with division chief Debbie Bruce.

Stephenson brings more than 30 years of experience to his new administrative role, and he talked recently about some of the challenges faced by the Division of Fisheries and its plans for the future.


Q: What is the state of the Division of Fisheries now?

A: Our actual numbers are down less than half probably from where we were 15 years ago.

We’ve got 30 field biologists if you count the Lake Michigan program, the rivers and streams program and the lakes program, but there never were more than about 40. In all, we have 68 people in fisheries.

We used to have (more administrative) staff in Springfield. Mike Conlin was the division chief, and he had the program managers here at the Springfield office.

Now there is just Debbie and I.

And Jake Wolf Hatchery is now is down to nine people. Its full complement was 26 at one time.

Q: Tell me about the people who are still here

A: The average age of all the biologists is about 56, so we’re getting some age on us. I think in the division we have only two people under 40 years old.

We’ve got really good people and that’s what’s carrying this thing. Obviously if you had a business that had lost 50 percent of its people and you didn’t have good people you would be in trouble.

We are very fortunate to have good people out in the field and they are carrying us.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Fisheries division personnel team up to drain a rearing pond and collect crappies for stocking.

Q: Who are some of the fisheries personnel with a lot of years with the department?

A: That’s about everybody, anymore. We’ve got a lot of people over 30 years.

Kenny Russell, the biologist we have in Galesburg, he came on in November 1963. Kenny has been in his district for 50-plus years now.

He does a lot of work with private landowners and private lakes and ponds. He is kind of our guru for that.

Over the years, he has been involved in writing our pond management book. He’s just one of a kind.

And Wayne Herndon has been on 43 or 44 years now. He is in the Peoria area.

Wayne is one who started draining and killing out — and then re-starting — backwater lakes, like Spring Lake, that were full of carp and bullheads. And he created really good fisheries.

Q: So where do things go from here? What are the priorities?

A: We’re looking at reorganization based on where we do have people.

If you look at the organizational chart now, there are vacancies and holes everywhere. So we are trying to consolidate and restructure so it is more in line with where we have people and live bodies.

And we are getting to hire. That sustainability bill (SB 1566) went through. There is some money in there for fisheries, called the Fisheries Management Fund, and that is supposed to bring in about $1.5 million a year.

And we have (another source of revenue based on increases in some licenses and fees) that should bring in another $300,000.

That’s not a lot but we can use it.

... When the money does start to come in from the sustainability bill, hatchery techs for all three of the hatcheries are some of the first critical hires.

Q: How many fish do all three hatcheries produce in a year?

A: Roughly 25-30 million. The thing is that probably half of them are little walleye fry and sauger fry that don’t have very good survival rates.

The number looks big — and it is considering the number of people we have actually doing the work — but it’s kind of inflated by stocking all those little fry.

Q: Is the control of Asian carp still taking up a lot of time and energy?

A: It is and it probably always will. We’ve got that special crew that was hired for them.

So, when I said we have 68 in fisheries, we actually have 74. Because six of them are part of the Asian carp team paid for out of a special (federal fund specifically for Asian carp), not our DJ or sport fish restoration funds (sportsmen’s dollars).

We’ve got those people hired, and they are doing a great job. The team works year round now, surveying, monitoring, netting and shocking to make sure nothing (has gone past the barrier).

In three years of doing this we’ve only found one Asian carp ever above the electric barrier. And we’ve got tens of thousands of man-hours in looking for them. I think that electric barrier is very, very effective.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Stephenson records data collected during fall lake surveys.

Q: What happens to Dingell Johnson (Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act) funds?

A: All of our funding in the division of fisheries — except for the Asian carp group — comes from fishing license sales, stamps, and all the DJ money that comes back from the federal government.

The Division of Fisheries receives no tax dollars, no general revenue.

And it all goes into the Wildlife and Fish Fund. The general assembly appropriates money from the Wildlife and Fish Fund. This year the division got $10.8 million appropriated from that fund.

Q: Any other new initiatives?

A: Another priority is northeastern Illinois because that’s where most of our people are. We’ve got a lot of great resources, but mostly south of I-80, and most of our people are up north of I-80.

So we are going to create this program called CORE Community Outreach and Resource Enhancement.

It’s going to work statewide and include our successful urban program plus some additional management (for communities, park districts and forest preserve districts with lakes and ponds).

Q: What about fishing license sales?

A: Fishing licenses are up 11 percent in the last two years.

We count on selling 700,000 resident licenses each year, and it varies from that and has been as high as 850,000.

We also sell some non-resident licenses and other licenses like salmon and inland trout stamps, for example.

So our total license sales approach 1 million.

Including kids under age 16 who don’t need a license, we have 1.1 or 1.2 million people who fish at least once a year in Illinois.

Q: But not everyone buys a license every year?

A: One of the things we’ve found is that only (a small percentage) buy a fishing license for five consecutive years.

It’s always in flux, always changing. Some anglers drop out and we pick up new ones.

We want to make sure everybody continues to buy a fishing license.

For every new license sold (the state of Illinois gets) roughly $12 (from the federal government). So you get the license fee plus the $12 federal aid.

That’s a chunk of money for us, and we run ourselves on a shoestring.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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