Why You Have to Be 93 Years Old (and Counting) to Fish Free in Wisconsin

You had to be born before Jan. 1, 1927 to get a free fishing license in Wisconsin. That date hasn’t changed since 1992.

Bill Howe was once an enthusiastic fisherman, but he has not fished in more than 20 years.

“I don’t fish anymore, but everyone brings me fish,” he says, including his son, Gary, who is 66. “None of my old friends fish, either.”

If Howe wanted to fish again in Wisconsin, this Prairie du Chien man could do so for free because he is 97. Most of us are not so age-worthy.

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Before 1992, Wisconsin anglers who were at least 65 could qualify for free senior fishing licenses, says Kimberly Currie, bureau director for the State Department of Natural Resource’s Customer and Outreach services.

But at that time, the state faced a dilemma. The state did not have enough funds to match up to 25 percent of the federal money Wisconsin received for fishing restoration projects, Currie says.  So that’s why the state eliminated the free senior fishing licenses except for those who were at least 65 at the beginning of 1992. They, in effect, were grandfathered in for the free licenses.

However, the new law also said that you had to be born before Jan. 1, 1927 to get a no-cost license. And since then, the date has not been changed.  

So much like a dying lake, the number of fish in that lake continues to decline as does those who can snag a free fishing license.

Even the oldest state legislator, State Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who has announced his retirement, cannot fish without paying. He is five months too young, having been born on May 5, 1927. But he does not feel left out because, “I’m a biker, not a fisher,” he says. “That’s not my sport.”

The state says it has good financial reasons for continuing to make anglers, 65 and older up to 93, annually pay $7 for their licenses, while the rest of us, after age 15, pay $20.

“We don’t collect fees just to collect fees,” says Sarah Hoye, the DNR’s communications director. “This money is for real work being done to make sure everybody can access and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources, including our world-class fishing.”

Last year, the state received almost $11.9 million in federal funds from the Dingell-Johnson (Sport Fish Restoration) Act, says Melissa A. Clark, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

States get that money based on a formula that includes the number of paid fishing license holders. The program has been in effect since 1952.

Last year, the state issued 141,967 fishing licenses to people 65-92, Currie says. The revenue from those licenses totals almost $1 million.

“If we lost the fishing license revenue, the state would lose the ability to get those federal funds,” Currie says.

The state has no data base showing how many people, 93 and older, still get a free fishing license. To fish free, a game warden will normally scan your driver’s license to verify that you are a Wisconsin resident and old enough to not have to pay.

Figures from the state credit bureaus estimate that in 2019, there were nearly 129,000 people in Wisconsin who were 85 and older, of whom 66 percent were women.

Sen. Risser says none of his constituents have asked him to introduce a bill that would restore free fishing licenses for people older than 65.

How about if the age limit were over 70, he was asked? Would that work for him?

“Well, that’s pretty young,” he said with some feigned skepticism. “You’re just getting started at that age, aren’t you?”   

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