Should Walleye Fishing in Montana Close During the Spawn?
By angelamontana

Posted: May 8, 2020

Gordon Robinson aka Robbi from the Walleye Unlimited Chapter in Great Falls did some of his own research on whether fishing during the walleye spawn in Montana is bad for fisheries.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I Stand Corrected!”

by Robbi Robinson

First, I would like to say Thank You and Congratulations to all of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel, Fish and Wildlife Commissioners and all of the chapters/members of Walleyes Unlimited that got the Upper Missouri River Reservoir Management Plan completed.  Over 2 years of struggles, cussing and discussing, compromises, meetings, public comments, writing, research, rewriting, reviews and finally agreement.  This was just from “our” side of things, FWP personnel had to entertain other groups with interests in the other species involved.  Then the Commission, instead of rubber stamping the plan made sure it was comprehensive, workable and represented all that had a stake in the matter.  My biggest take away after all the smoke cleared is that we have an excellent plan to guide us into the future and it is responsive.  With FWP not locked down to time frames and able to take input from a citizens advisory they can respond to abnormal trends much quicker and that will lead to better management.  Again Thank You to all that persevered and came up with a quality product.

BUT……..with all that work and all that progress is it enough!?  Is there more that can be done?  The fisheries most in question are Holter, Hauser and Canyon Ferry.  We all know walleye are cyclic in nature and fisheries ebb and flow, but, these seem so drastic.  One would think there has to be more contributing factors.  Myself, I focused more on Holter because Hauser and especially Canyon Ferry have been the subject of many discussions in the last few years and forage is a major challenge in those trying to support a multi species fishery.  But, Holter?  There doesn’t seem like there has been a forage problem in Holter, especially with the perch explosion of 2012/13 and it’s been a great walleye fishery in recent years only slipping in the last few.  

I’ve always told FWP biologists that if they wanted their choice of 20 fisheries management plans, just ask 20 fishermen, because we all know how to best manage any fishery.  Holter is no exception.  2 or 3 years ago I had asked FWP Fish Management Supervisor, Eric Roberts about the effect of allowing fishing of pre spawn walleye where they stage before spawning.  My concern being that it was becoming more and more popular and places that you would only see a few boats a couple years back are getting more and more crowded.  So much so that I know some seasoned walleye fishermen that won’t even go there anymore.  This no doubt has to have an effect on a fishery.  Eric’s response was immediate, without much hesitation.  He stated there were not enough people fishing that time of year to have an impact on a fishery of that size.  I was surprised and crushed by Eric’s answer, because it didn’t seem he even considered thinking about my well thought through and obviously intellgent question.  It was a shame, cuz I kinda like the guy and wanted to help him solve a major problem we had at Holter Reservoir.  After all, I am a fisherman!!  Before I started really researching this article I even approached the “new” Fisheries Manager in Region 4, Jason Rhoten.  Surely he would see that I put a lot of thought into it and only wanted what was best.  Although Jason listen a little longer (just barely) than Eric, it appeared he did so just to let me down easy instead of thinking over my keen observations related to pre spawn fishing.  Jason admitted he was originally from one of those mid western walleye Mecca’s where they had a closed season during the spawn, but claimed it was more of a “social regulation” than biological.  What the heck is a “social regulation”?  So, not to be deterred I figured I’d ask the guy in the know, FWP biologist Adam Strainer who actually takes care of Holter as part of his region, Eric used to but must have forgotten some things.  Well you guessed it; Adam took their side against me and agreed with them!  So now I had to strike out and find the information I needed to justify my thoughts.  After all, I am a fisherman and know stuff!!

I started looking into the effects of stressing pre spawn fish and found many negative factors and different responses the fish go through.  I will not bore you with all of the sources of my research, because believe me, they are boring!  Many of the effects are related to normal causes of hooking mortality which was covered in the last issue of Fish Tales.  In addition to those is something called allostasis, which is the process of how the body responds to stressors in order to regain homeostasis (normality or balance).  Stress causes lactic acid build up in muscles which causes lack of oxygen and blood acidification.  It also increases heart rate, damages tissue and increases cortizol levels which decreases the immune system.  All this can last from 24 hours to 36 hours and cause fish to display unnatural behavior or even die.  In pre spawn females this can make them less likely to reproduce.  Either through not laying eggs and reabsorbing them into their body or laying eggs that are less fertile or less likely to produce fry.  The above is from stress and doesn’t take into consideration any physical injury occurring to the fish during catching and handling. 

Armed with all this information I thought I really had stronger evidence to support my fisherman’s theory and a partial solution to the perplexing challenge of Holter Reservoir.  So what is the logical next step?  Of course to contact biologists across the nation that would surely see things my way and educate these Montana biologists on walleye management.  With this in mind I sent out an email to various biologists in various states, some with closed seasons during the spawn and others without closed seasons.  Many states responded with varying degrees of information.  Below I will list the most helpful of the states and summarize their responses.  (In reality, I would never try to get a biologist to overshadow or disagree with another biologist, I only asked generic questions)

The states with closed seasons that I got the best responses from were Vermont, Minnesota and Michigan.   Keeping in mind that Montana’s walleye fisheries differ greatly from the east part of the state to the western part other states vary within their borders also.  Michigan for example has the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula.  Both have a closed season, one being longer than the other.  The purpose of the closure is to protect aggregations of spawning adults when they are more vulnerable.  Data indicates that angler harvest is higher during the spawn in certain areas.  A biologist from Minnesota that I’ve obtained information from in the past responded and related that their closed season has evolved over the years from a biological regulation that was probably based on common sense not science, to a ………..ready for this……..”social regulation”.  This means that “The Opener” (opening day of the season) is a huge social and economic event every spring and the closed season has very little to do with protecting spawning walleye.  He did however, say that there are certain portions of fisheries where fishing for congregations of spawning walleye is considered a threat and those areas are closed longer into the year.  Worthy of note is these areas are closed because of the ease of catching the fish vs. the adverse effects of catching/stressing pre spawn females, same as Michigan.  According to the biologist in Vermont the closed season was initially brought into effect to combat declining catch rates of walleye.  The result was that the closed season did not reverse the decline and although not pin pointed it appeared the decrease was due to the lack of juvenile walleye survival vs. angler harvest.  In other fisheries within Vermont the season was closed for ease of enforcement and the closure they have today is more to simplify regulations and make them consistent throughout the state.

The states with no closed season that were most helpful with my inquiry were North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.  By the looks of the reasoning given by these state biologists you’d think they got together and conspired against me even though I am a fisherman and full of information!  In the interest of not being repetitive I’ll just list the reasons they don’t close the spawning season and the causes they all have.  Every biologist including our very own Eric Roberts replied that many of the walleye fisheries are stocked so natural production doesn’t play a part.  In waters that depend on natural reproduction, they are more impacted by environmental conditions more so than angler harvest.  Water and air temperatures, water elevations, forage availability, flushing and spring weather patterns in general are the major drivers of successful or unsuccessful recruitment.  Interestingly, since reproduction is dictated by the above conditions, forage fish may have poor recruitment that year so you might not want optimal predator success either, throwing the balance of the system out.  Another factor that was mentioned by all was the lack of fishing pressure during this time of year.  The angler pressure is low and there has never been a lack in the numbers of spawning females.  It should be noted that catch rates are low also at this time of year for the most part.  Some of the best walleye anglers I know fish this time of year and know that the numbers will be low, but the potential for big fish is high.  A couple biologists also mentioned that having a closed season would also prevent an opportunity for anglers that don’t have a boat, since walleye are in shallow water, closer to shore this time of year.  

One thing that stood out to me during all my research is the geographic separations that became apparent by the responses I got.  From the states with natural lakes and rivers vs. states with dams and manmade reservoirs used for irrigation there appears to be major differences in management strategies to solve different challenges each faces.  Since walleye management varies so much it gives validity to my fisherman’s management plan in my opinion.  Who can say I’m wrong?  However, to give justice to the walleye fishing community in Montana I must admit “I Stand Corrected”!  After all of the research I have done on this I don’t believe spring fishing of pre or post spawn  walleye in Montana has any measurable impact on our fisheries.  I also think after all the research papers, theses and studies I read I should do an article on; Scientists and the English language!  

Although I didn’t solve the problem on Holter Reservoir there is a bright spot in all of this.  I am convinced now more than ever that our FWP biologists, Eric, Jason and Adam did not waste their money going to college and they probably even paid attention in class.  Although I joke, I am seriously glad that we have dedicated and reasonable biologists taking care of our fisheries.  Be that as it may, I’m still available to you all for some fisherman’s advice anytime you may be in need!!  

Remember, it’s the responsibility of all sportsmen/women to know how to properly catch, handle and release a fish causing the minimum of stress and injury.  I know, ya’ll have your own management plans, don’t be afraid to discuss them with FWP, who knows, maybe you can help.