Profile Q & A: Jeff Jolley, Michigan DNR

Jeff Jolley is the fisheries supervisor for the Southern Lake Huron Management Unit of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). His office is in Bay City. He supervises two fisheries biologists and a technical staff. 

The Saginaw River Basin (SRB) is the second largest watershed in the state. The largest is the Grand River on the west side. The basin includes four major tributaries: the Tittabawassee, Cass, Flint, and Shiawassee Rivers. Jolley’s unit goes north to the Au Gres River, east through the Thumb, and includes the Saginaw Bay, and inland lakes and waterways.
Jeff Jolley is a fisheries supervisor with the Michigan DNR.
The 2022 Michigan Fishing Guide reports that sports fishing has a $4 billion impact on the state’s economy annually including 38,000 jobs. Two million Michigan residents and non-residents fish here each year. 

Jolley has worked for the DNR since 2019. Prior to that, he worked for the federal government for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. He’s a native of Farmington, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. He has a bachelor’s degree in zoology from North Dakota State, a master's from Auburn University, and a doctorate from South Dakota State, both in fisheries science.

Q-What’s the significance of our region when it comes to fishing? 

A-For me, coming to Michigan, it felt like coming back to Minnesota, similar culture, the outdoor activities. Michigan is a destination state. It’s pretty special. Lots of awesome natural resources. Fishing’s a big deal. A lot of it is paid for by the people who do it through their fishing licenses and taxes on the equipment. The walleye fishery in this area is known but it’s still a little unknown. It’s the best in the state and it rivals other parts of the country. It’s under the radar, because for vacation land, people think of the sunset side of the state.

Q-Please explain what’s happening with the walleye tagging program.

A-The walleye population is very healthy and abundant. From the Saginaw Bay up to a certain point on the Saginaw River, we’re allowing an eight fish per day limit, with a 13” minimum size limit. That’s fairly liberal, and provides a lot of opportunities. We think the bulk of the spawning happens on the Tittabawassee, below the Dow dam. We plant 3,000 walleye with tags, a piece of metal with a number on it that’s put on their jaw. If an angler catches one, they can report that to us. Some are tagged with a $100 reward.

Jason Gostiaux, MI DNR Fish Biologist, with a tagged walleye.Anglers help us by participating. It helps us gauge the harvest rates, how many are being harvested. We have very, very good data. It helps us keep on top of it and set these liberal limits. From early March until late April, the fishing season for walleye is closed on the Saginaw River. But next year on the Saginaw River, we'll leave it open for those six weeks. You won’t have to fish from big boats on the bay. You’ll be able to fish on the river and from the shorelines to catch walleye. It will still be closed where they do their spawning on the Tittabawassee.

Q-May 19th will be the second anniversary of the disaster that drained Wixom and Sanford Lakes after the dams there were breached. Governor Whitmer recently signed legislation that provides major financial support to rebuild the dams and restore the lakes. What are the DNR’s plans going forward, working with the Four Lakes Task Force, the authority delegated by Midland and Gladwin Counties to lead the rebuild and restoration?

A-I interact with Four Lakes often. The reservoirs and most of the fish there went away.  The fish either found hiding spots, lived downriver, or went out to the bay. Sanford and Wixom Lakes were popular and good fisheries. The crappie season was big when there was ice and the bass and walleye seasons were big in the summer. This was one of the systems where we had a muskellunge stocking program. All these things were lost. We’re having conversations about what the conditions and habitats were. I’m guessing we’ll do some stocking to jump start these programs. It won’t happen overnight. Probably start with crappies. They’re fast growing. Then we’ll try to get our predators going, northern pike, largemouth bass, and walleye. As the predators grow, the crappie  population will probably go down. It could take three to five years to get a balance between the predators and prey. 

Q-What’s happening with your efforts to reintroduce the sturgeon population here? 

A-It’s pretty exciting. The lake sturgeon reintroduction program is in our fifth year. Every year, we’re releasing about 1,000 juvenile lake sturgeon into the rivers, the Flint, Cass, Tittabawassee, and Shiawassee. They’re reared at hatcheries but they are the progeny of wild fish. Their fertilized eggs are brought into the hatchery. They need clean water in a lot of different habitats. The Saginaw River Basin is in good shape. This program is expensive. We’re not going to do this in an area that’s degraded. It’s not that the Saginaw River Basin doesn’t need help, but it really, really has improved over the past 30 years. It supports a healthy fish population. That’s something we can be proud of.
April Simmons, MI DNR Fish Biologist, with a juvenile lake sturgeon.
I’ve heard anecdotal stories that ice fishermen were catching juvenile lake sturgeon by accident.  They take pictures and post them online but they release them. They’re a very historic fish. They precede dinosaurs. They’re a fish that connects the public to clean water. They can live 100 years but it takes them around 14-15 years to become sexually mature. 

Q-When I look at the Michigan Fishing Guide, there are pages and pages of differing regulations for fishing in the many bodies of water across the state.  What’s the purpose of all these rules?

A- We try to make them simple and easy to understand and support. Then the anglers will be supportive. A majority of people are compliant and believe in the regulations. The goal is to protect the population of fish. They’re also tools for management. That’s why you’ll see water specific regulations. Saginaw Bay has a liberal harvest limit for walleye because we have enough fish. In the rest of the state, it’s a five fish limit with a minimum size of 15”. If a population is in bad shape, we get really restrictive and keep more fish in the lake. 

We do a lot of outreach. We’ve held several virtual seminars to explain what the changes are and to give the public a chance to ask questions.

Q-Do you fish?

A-I’m not great at it but I still like doing it.

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To buy a fishing license, sign up to receive the weekly fishing report, and gather other information from the Michigan DNR, go to their website

 

Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."