Chicago Park District staff last week received a fishing surprise. Changes in waivers from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources would require anyone 16 and older to buy a fishing license, even if trying an introductory program.

This is not an inconsequential. The park district runs more than 10,000 people through its fishing programs. Most are kids exempt from buying fishing licenses, but the waiver for adults is vital for family events, say those held at Northerly Island, and summer fishing along the Chicago Riverwalk.

“Our issue is when we have family events,” a long-time park district fishing staffer said. “It will effect us having adults turn out.’’

For years, the IDNR issued the park district a waiver for the season to allow adults to fish in those introductory programs.

That changed this year.

Here is the wording: “The IDNR Division of Fisheries will issue Free Group Fishing Permits, but only in instances in which groups of hospital patients or nursing home residents will be fishing as part of therapy programs. Youth and social groups planning fishing events and activities are reminded that youth under the age of 16 need not have a license to fish, while adults accompanying or chaperoning the youth, or participating in a group fishing event, should make sure they have licenses if they intend to fish.’’

I reached Illinois fisheries chief Dan Stephenson for an explanation.

“I know this may be controversial and create some problems  but I think it is the right thing to do,” he emailed. All other able-bodied fishers over 15 have to buy a license, so all should. It’s a stewardship thing in my mind.’’

This isn’t good vs evil; it’s good people with differing views on  a process of getting people involved in fishing.

The IDNR processes 200-300 group fishing permits annually. The Chicago Park District and other districts used to receive a blanket waiver from March through October. No more, unless it is people with special needs or patients. Senior citizens and veterans also will likely receive waivers.

On one reason, Stephenson is flat wrong, showing a Downstate misunderstanding of Chicago, “We believe that most of the adults that come with children to fish will already have a fishing license so they won’t have to purchase one especially for the event.’’

He is correct it will affect a “relatively small number of adults that do not have a license prior to the event.” He suggests they could buy a single-day license.

Stephenson pointed out that the IDNR spends $103,300 annually to stock 56,250 catchable-sized hybrid sunfish and 41,000 pounds of 1-2 pound channel catfish in Chicago. That doesn’t include the cost for the IDNR’s own Urban Fishing Program.

“All of the costs associated with this program are funded by fishing license sales, so we do need those that are required by law to purchase a license, to do so,” Stephenson said.

The state also receives about $11 from the feds on each license sale.

I understand Stephenson’s reasoning, but I think the Chicago Park District is right in the long-range hope for fishing and urban outdoors.

“The whole idea is to have a time where family can fish together, so families could spend some time together,” a park district staffer said.

That’s the real bottom line, more than dollars.

Credit: Dale Bowman