THE GOOD old days for fishing in the North Woods come up in conversations from time to time, and it’s not always easy to pinpoint exactly why fishing isn’t what it used to be.

We’ve lost a lot of size structure in the walleye fishery, as an example, and public perception of walleye numbers has suffered as bag limits were reduced and size limits got more restrictive.

Most of those changes were due to tribal off-reservation spearing, pressure from technologically advanced anglers and lost reproductive capacity in many lakes, some of which was due to shoreline development and lost habitat.

But the decline occurred over decades so it’s hard to be precise on the reasons.

We lost some great trout fishing opportunities for some of the same reasons, with fishing pressure and habitat changes leading the list. Ditto for everything from panfish to northern pike.

Today I want to talk about the end of the good old days on Stormy Lake in Conover, where the brown trout fishery was still exceptional just six or seven years ago. Few things go downhill as fast as Stormy did.

While many anglers know the catch rate and the daily bag limit of two fish over 12 inches are a far cry from what it had been, not everyone knows the details of how that came to be.

A lake that had been stocked annually with between 12,000 and 15,000 yearling-sized brown trout in the 6- to 8-inch range was suddenly cut to less than 2,000 trout.

So what happened?

First off, the scare over viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) being found in the Great Lakes led to major restrictions on what trout hatcheries could be used to produce fish for inland waters.

The fish-killing disease affected a lot of basic operating procedures for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), because they could no longer chance moving fish between lakes.

“We lost our ability to use the Brule River Hatchery for stocking inland streams, and that is where all of our brown trout came from for years,” said Steve Gilbert, a regional fish biologist who was Vilas County’s designated biologist for years. 

“The hatchery uses water from Lake Superior, so using those trout to stock inland fisheries was out of the question.”

Gilbert said like so many other counties they had to switch to the St. Croix Hatchery, which meant reductions in the department’s ability to meet statewide demand for brown trout.

Besides taking on new stocking requests from regions they hadn’t covered in the past, the St. Croix facility was heavily involved in the production of wild brown trout — which take up more hatchery space than domestic varieties.

Jeff Mosher, director of the St. Croix Hatchery, said the wild brown trout take up more hatchery space because they have different feeding behaviors and don’t do as well in tanks or near people as the previous strain of brown trout that was domesticated over the decades.

“We use the wild strain in many areas because they are more adaptable to the environment and have a better chance of reproducing on their own, as opposed to a purely put-and-take fishery,” Mosher said.

He said the good news is that the domesticated strain they’ve stocked for many years “grow way faster and are much more conducive to put-and-take fishing.

“We just can’t produce enough to meet the demand put forth by all the fish biologists statewide,” he said. “In recent years we’ve managed to hit about 70 percent of the goal — which is determined through the requests from fish biologists across the state.”

But even if the hatchery could meet 100 percent of the quotas, biologists here are still asking for only 2,500 yearling trout for Stormy. That’s only a fraction of what biologists once requested.

“Prior to 2010, the brown trout stocking on Stormy Lake bounced between 12,000 and 15,000 yearlings annually,” said Eric Wegleitner, the DNR’s fish biologist for Vilas County. “That represented about 25 trout per acre. Today, we are requesting five trout per acre and receiving about three and one-half trout per acre.”

Wegleitner said he and other biologists don’t have much of a choice because of the lost hatchery capacity for producing those domesticated brown trout.

“That’s were we are at and that’s where we are going to be,” he said.

Reports from anglers indicate the trout fishing on Stormy Lake isn’t what it was just a half-decade ago. Besides that, the daily bag limit was dropped from five trout over 12 inches to just two trout — discouraging many anglers from making the trek to Conover.

At the time the bag limit decision was made, Gilbert was the county’s fish biologist. He said agency rules gave him few choices other than the two-fish limit and 12-inch minimum.

In light of today’s reduced stocking for this put-and-take fishery, it appears some bag limit reduction was necessary to spread the potential harvest across more anglers and angling parties.

The bottom line is that the good old days on Stormy Lake are gone and won’t be returning any time soon. I remember a day when a boat of two anglers could catch 10 keeper trout in two or three hours.

Not only was the action fantastic, but the quality of the trout for dining purposes was extraordinary — the deep orange-colored flesh producing flavor never expected from a stocked trout.

While it’s not all that comforting to know why, at least the reasons for this put-and-take trout fishery decline are well documented.