When to catch and release or to keep a walleye or any other type of fish is a widely controversial, debatable and personal topic for fisherman all across the nation. Different fisherman, government agencies, biologists and conservationists have their opinions of what type, sex and size of fish to throw back into the water, and all have reasons why. Whether or not their reasons are right or wrong is the ongoing topic between the different entities. The article below was written by Gordon “Robbi” Robinson and was featured in Fish Tales Magazine, the official publication of Montana Walleye Unlimited. It is a hot topic for fisherman in Montana and a great read for fisherman everywhere. We will be discussing this subject tomorrow morning on our show. Catch us tomorrow at 6:00am right here or on any of these stations.
CAREFUL WHAT WE
By Gordon “Robbi” Robinson
Many years ago when I was a died-in-the-wool trout fisherman, I loved fishing the Missouri River from below Holter Dam to Hardy Creek. At the time my work schedule was 6 days on and 3 days off. This allowed me to camp for 3 days at a time and fish all I could. I remember many nights at the Craig Bar gathering information about the bite and locations for some great fishing. I believe at the time there was the first fly fishing shop sprouting up in Craig. Just a couple of good guys trying to start a business. This was also when fly fishing seemed to be surging in popularity as did the practice of catch and release. Not that people didn’t practice catch and release but it was becoming prestigious now and put you a step above the common fisherman. I’m sure this was imported to the state because Montanan’s didn’t act like that in my experience. Many fights occurred at the Craig Bar over those words. Both sides of that argument can be debated, but the facts and truth are somewhere in the middle of the debate. Today I don’t even fish the river. I don’t fit in, I don’t agree with the prevalent belief that surrounds all the drift boats and people whipping fly lines back and forth. “Elitists” is the word that comes to mind when thinking of this group of people. Needless to say I never became a member of Trout Unlimited.
Now maybe it’s the rebel in me or perhaps the fact that I don’t like being told what to do or maybe because I detest half-truths and excuses, but someone looking down their nose at me and proclaiming that their opinion or moral values are superior to mine just makes my blood pressure rise a little.
About five years ago, a man – Ole Joe – introduced me to the strange world of walleye fishing. I really had no interest because I knew you needed a boat, special equipment, and a whole lot of knowledge. Do this in the spring, this in the summer, change this for fall, blah, blah, blah!
Ole Joe had moved here from Michigan a few years prior to me meeting him. He had a nice Lund boat, but no way to tow it and he didn’t have much knowledge of Montana other than the local Great Falls area. Long story short, we towed his boat for him to Holter, Frances and Tiber. We fished almost every weekend from August through October. He supplied the equipment necessary and taught my fiancé, Jules, and I about catching walleye. We really didn’t catch many fish, but we kept after it and I actually took to this type fishing. I was free of the dirty looks a person fishing worms from the bank on the river receives. A boat on the lake sets you free and apart from all others. Even though we weren’t very successful, it was still a great time.
That winter I researched walleye and walleye fishing as much as I could. I met people and asked questions. We attended the boat shows, the Walleyes Unlimited banquet and anything I thought would help us catch more walleye. Our Christmas presents between Jules and I centered on gear we needed. We had been bitten by the walleye bug! During my research I saw evidence of the Montana politics of walleye vs. trout. I didn’t involve myself but watched this from a distance. Some walleye guys talked trash about trout guys and vice versa and of course FWP couldn’t make either side happy. Like I suspected, there was a lot of knowledge I needed to gain.
In the years since, I’ve bought Joe’s boat, upgraded the electronics, trolling motor and anything else that didn’t suit us. Jules and I have added rods, reels, gear and more gear to our already ample fishing supplies. We are at the lake almost every weekend and when the gas prices got unreasonably high, we increased our camping gear and stayed from Friday evening to Sunday evening. (No point in going for one day when gas costs that much!) We met so many awesome people in the walleye community that weren’t afraid to share their knowledge. And this past year we actually became members of Walleyes Unlimited (WU).
Like many people I still research walleye and how to fish them, a process that will never end. One thing I’ve noticed across the range of walleye from New England to Montana is how different every place is and how different management techniques vary. I’ve also noticed a lot of bad management practices that have damaged walleye populations in some waters. There is no blanket management strategy that fits for all walleye waters. Montana is no different when it comes to that. We only have a handful of lakes/reservoirs with walleye; however, when you look at each individual waterway, you can see many differences in the waters and how they should be managed.
This is why I’m concerned about things I’m hearing in the walleye community. Since I began walleye fishing, I’ve heard people say “release 20 inch and above.” This mantra is gaining steam it appears and I’ve actually seen people look down their noses when they say it. Remember my response to the catch and release trout guys all those years ago? Well you can guess that someone trying to guilt me into releasing walleye hasn’t been good for my blood pressure. Now mind you, I’m just a fisherman that loves to eat fish, a far cry from a professional or a biologist, but through all the research I’ve done I have not seen any evidence that leads me to believe that this is of strategic importance to helping walleye in Montana waters.
Don’t get me wrong, I think releasing fish over 20” is ethical and sportsmanlike just as much as letting undersized fish go. I am saying that we should be careful of what we’re teaching as fact. No one can really tell me how or why this practice began but it’s believed that it started as something that fishermen thought to be a good idea and may have been a response to some FWP regulations on creel limits. Overall there is a belief that these size fish are the “prime” spawners (females). In certain waters this may be, but is a blanket statement like this right for all waters holding walleye? It’s common knowledge that female walleye grow larger than males and the bigger the hen (female walleye), the more eggs. An approximation of 26,000 eggs per pound of fish is one estimate I read. Walleye begin spawning when they mature. Male walleye mature at 3-4 years of age and females at 5-6 years. Depending on the particular body of water, the size of these walleye will vary and that’s why I question the wisdom of releasing 20” and above. By attempting to state a size of prime spawners we’re pinning a bullseye on many “viable” spawners.
I contacted Dave Yerk, Region 4 FWP biologist for information pertaining to age vs. size and he put together the following charts for Lake Frances and Tiber Reservoir. These charts are based on a sample size of over 1,000 fish on each body of water. Although only 100 miles apart, these two lakes are a great example of fish growing at different rates in different waters. This is due to a variety of factors. Mr. Yerk stated that 14-15 year old walleye are not uncommon in both Tiber and Frances. Generally the farther north you go, the slower fish grow and the longer they tend to live. Your most productive spawning females are 6-12 years old. Older fish tend to start skipping years that they spawn, unlike those in the 6-12 year range.
The charts put 6-12 year old female fish on Tiber at 17 to 27 inches. Now if you’re teaching people to keep 17” to 20” fish, you’re taking very viable spawners that will never reach 20+”. On Frances, your 6-year-old female walleye averages 19” and your 12-year-old averages 23”, so on this particular water, 20 to 23 inch fish are probably your most prolific spawners. It’s important to note that speaking in generalities is as close as we can get sometimes, since there are so many variables from year to year and even in different parts of the same body of water.
When trying to manage walleye populations you can see that there is no “one size fits all.” If you’re trying to groom a trophy walleye fishery, which some people in the state are interested in, then releasing all larger fish would be understandable, but if you’re attempting to strictly manage a good fishable population then a different strategy is needed.
While researching for this article, I talked to people on both sides of the issue. Like any debatable subject, feelings/emotions are very strong on both sides. FWP biologists don’t necessarily voice what they feel but use facts to manage the populations and the facts say that our walleye populations are currently strong and secure using the current regulations. It appears to me that these people are very good at what they do and they keep a close eye on information and what is happening in individual waters. The information they collect every year is used to put forth management practices of our valuable resource. As a side note, I must mention that all decisions FWP makes go out for public comment before they are implemented as regulations so we should all be active in this process. I talked to fishermen that felt the “release 20” and above” crowd were unrealistic and off the mark. The pro “over 20” crowd” I spoke to were fishermen that ranged from novice to pro, including guides and tournament fishermen. Almost across the board when asked why we should release walleye 20” and above, the #1 response was, “Because they are the prime spawners.” From there a whole litany of reasons were given for releasing fish of that size. Some seem to think producing a trophy walleye fishery is a worthy cause, many I talked to stated a distrust of FWP management practices because of perceived past mistakes. One of the more valid arguments would be that larger fish have more contaminates, i.e. mercury, and shouldn’t be eaten as often. “Smaller fish are better eating” is something I heard a lot of.
My question still remains what makes the larger walleyes “prime” spawners. I understand that larger fish have more eggs and since only a small percentage of eggs actually result in adult walleye, this thought process has some validity. However, another thought process that Grant Grisak, Region 4 Fisheries Manager, FWP speaks of and I personally subscribe to is that it might be better to have more spawning fish (albeit smaller) than fewer large spawners. The logic of this thought process is that if a 5 lb walleye contains 150,000 eggs and deposits them in one spot and that spot is not good for a number of possible reasons, the deposit could be lost. But, if three 2lb fish deposit their eggs of approximately 50,000 each in three different spots, could this result in a higher success rate even if one of the deposits is lost?
I was discussing this very thing with one of the most knowledgeable fishermen I talked to (in my opinion) and he told me that there was no such thing as a 17” female walleye that spawns. This took me by surprise because all my research indicated it was age/maturity and not size (assuming we are talking about healthy fish). I again contacted Dave Yerk and presented this to him. Mr. Yerk said he’s handled many spawning female walleye in Tiber Reservoir that were in the 16-17 inch range. So again, I reiterate that each individual waterway needs to be managed differently. Had that fisherman stated that there are no 17” spawners in Lake Frances, he would’ve been closer to correct.
The last paragraph of this article was going to begin “in conclusion,” but I’ve found this to be impossible. There is no conclusion in the debate. People on both sides of this issue will probably never agree and it appears that both sides have valid points.
I have to admit I started this article out of anger. I won’t be and am tired of being told how to fish or what I can keep as long as I am within the limits set in the Fish and Game Regulations. However, after seeing the passion all sides have demonstrated I realize that everyone has the best interest of our walleye fisheries at heart. The fact that the pro 20”+ crowd and FWP both have same goals but are required to go about it in different ways just means that all of us should re-evaluate our thought process and work together more closely for the common good. I would urge all walleye fishermen to research the waters they fish and find out what the best management practices are for that particular body of water. Keeping 22” walleye at Tiber or Fort Peck will most likely not have an adverse impact on the population. However, it may reduce the quality of the Lake Frances fishery.
One final thought on teaching (or demanding) 20” walleye be released is the effect that it could have on new or younger fishermen. I respect each individual’s decision to release whatever fish they determine to be too large or too small, but if we impose our personal values/morals on others are we being our own worst enemy? I’m mostly speaking about people considering becoming members of WU. Could we be chasing away potential members? Just think about it…then go have a great season of fishing and remember to take a senior, a child or someone new that hasn’t experienced the thrill of catching walleye.