Give Randy Claramunt a boat, a rod and reel and some time, and he will teach you a thing or to about inland lake fishing as well as his hopes and plans for the state of Michigan’s fisheries programs.
Claramunt, recently appointed Fisheries Chief of the DNR, shared his boat on Avery Lake in Montmorency County during the annual conference of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association (MOWA).
Before we got down to the official interview, though, there were fish to be caught. “Oh, this is a nice one,” he said as his rod nearly doubled back on itself. “Uh-oh! I might lose him. I’ve only got a six-pound test and no leader.”
After a couple of minutes of careful rodsmanship and finesse, though, he was able to bring the massive fish to the starboard side of the boat, where it was netted by Rick Fowler, Claramunt’s neighbor and fellow MOWA member.
The pike was huge—about 36 inches.
“It’s 35 and three-quarters inches,” Claramunt corrected.
Of course. As a professional biologist, he’s obligated to be as accurate as he can be. No story-stretching here.
A few minutes later and, “Bam!” Another pike. Smaller.
Despite those two hits, the fishing was mostly slow, and Claramunt showed one skill that should serve him well as chief: the ability to multitask.
“I’m working the trolling motor, keeping an eye on the graph, looking where to cast, watching my lure, and keeping an eye on the weather,” he said. “But I can answer questions while I’m fishing. Sometimes it’s good not to focus too hard on the fish.”
Claramunt kept his eyes on the water and, without missing a beat in his casts, started talking.
He applied for the chief position because “I felt compelled to do what I can do to address the needs of the fisheries.” And the two areas he mentioned in particular were restructuring how fisheries are funded and getting kids fishing.
The first thing people say when he speaks of improving funding is, “You just want to sell more fishing licenses.” But Claramunt is having none of that, not at the outset anyway. He’s looking beyond that. “We need to find ways to increase the investment. We must get supporters to invest in our fisheries, not just raise license fees.
“That 26-dollar license has to pay for fisheries, management, operations, opportunities, the whole deal. Clean water and habitat management programs, dams, commercial and tribal fishing. It goes way beyond the needs of someone who just wants recreational fishing.”
He noted that currently, sport fishing in Michigan brings in $2 billion annually, much of which is tourist dollars. But it gets nothing from the general budget and is appropriated only 6% of the DNR’s budget, he said.
“It just falls flat. I want to address the broken funding structure at every turn — We’re going to need that net, Rick!”
And after boating and releasing another nice pike, Claramunt continued.
The Fisheries Division needs more money. Loads of possibilities for raising funds don’t include license fee hikes.
“You can skin it a million ways,” he said, and mentioned a few. One way would be to simply allocate tax dollars from the general fund, or to do what the parks did with the Recreation Passport and have people add money when they get their vehicle licenses. He also mentioned the “Missouri model.”
As explained at the website for the Conservation Federation of Missouri, “The Design for Conservation Sales Tax is a one-eighth-of-one-percent sales tax that goes to support outdoor recreation and conservation efforts in Missouri. The Conservation Sales Tax is one-eight-of-one-percent of every taxable sale. For every $8 spent on taxable items, one penny goes to conservation efforts managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.”
That might not be a bad idea to try, Claramunt implied and added, “I want to put all ideas on the table.”
Then he gave some statistics about Michigan’s waters:
• More than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline
• 38,464 square miles — 40% of the Great Lakes
• More than 10,000 rivers and streams that run for 70,000 miles
All that water, and yet the budget-strained DNR is so thinly populated with fisheries biologists that each one is responsible for 160,000 acres. That’s such an expansive coverage zone that there’s no way for one person to effectively service the area regularly.
Or, as Claramunt put it, “It’s like a doctor giving you a prescription and saying he can check back in 50 to 100 years.”
He also mentioned the Institute for Fisheries Research, a cooperative unit of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the University of Michigan that conducts research on fisheries and other aquatic resources in Michigan. It once employed 44 staffers. “Now it’s down to four, and I might have to close it,” said Claramunt.
“We literally have the most diverse fishing in the world with the Great Lakes, streams and rivers, warm water and cool water lakes. We need to match funding to the value of resources. Restructuring is the way to go.
“Now, as far as kids go — Whoa! This is a big one. He might be bigger than that first pike!”
The fight included Claramunt calmly raising and lowering the rod as needed and both the fish and Fowler scuttling from one side of the boat to the other and then performing an ungainly ballet as he tried to slip the net beneath it. Then it took some line and sounded while both Claramunt and Fowler tensed, ready to snap into action. At last, the fish resurfaced, and Fowler swept it into the net without further ado.
“I think that might be bigger than the first one,” Claramunt guessed.
It wasn’t. Wasn’t longer anyway. But it was a lot fatter.
During the fight and the eventual boating of the fish, Claramunt spoke at a quicker, slightly animated pitch than usual. That’s because, “I thought I had missed it and let the lure fall into the weeds. And he went after it. That’s what made me so excited.”
When it comes to kids, Claramunt likes to tell the story of a reintroduction of juvenile sturgeon into the Saginaw River system.
“In 1976, we saw the last sturgeon in the Saginaw River system. In 2017, we started to replant them. You’ll see families with children so eager to get knee-deep in the water to put a sturgeon into the water.
“We get 100 kids out there and ask how many of the parents have fishing licenses. You might get five.
“How do we keep the kids interested? They have a built-in fascination with nature. They don’t have a license. There is no investment. But they are interested. Kids own it and really care. It’s up to us to nurture that.”
Not long thereafter, Claramunt hooked a fat largemouth bass. Day’s total: Randy 4, Others 0.
That’s how the Chief rolls.