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Walleyes Forever - Catch & Release

Catch and release guidelines for walleyes & other warm water species

* Use care when releasing walleyes to reduce mortality factors and help the fish survive.

Just because you catch a walleye doesn't mean that you have to keep it. All of our fisheries can benefit from selective harvest on the part of anglers. And the old rule of thumb about keeping just a meal or two of fish for your family after a day on the water will go a long way toward better fishing for you and others, not just today or tomorrow, but well into the future. Keep a few of the smaller ones. Let the big ones go to be caught another day.

Fisheries studies have identified a number of factors that can reduce the likelihood that released fish will survive. Among those factors are high water temperatures, length of time in livewells, crowding in livewells, transporting fish in rough water or simply not handling fish gently enough.

Using proper handling techniques will improve the chance of survival for any fish you release. Even then, a fish that is released may still die from deep hooking injury, internal organ damage from being squeezed, bacterial infections resulting from loss of slime in the handling process or the effects of physical stress from being played too long, low dissolved oxygen in livewells or heat shock from being held in shallow water or livewells.

Also, remember that under state law, waters designated catch-and-release for one or more species of fish require that those fish must be immediately released alive.

With all that in mind, here are some guidelines for walleyes and other warm water species -- plus instructions on a deep-water release device -- put together by Jim Vashro, fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, that will help make you a better catch and release angler and protect our fisheries for the future.

How to release fish

To insure a released fish has the best chance for survival:

  • Play the fish as rapidly as possible. Do not play it to total exhaustion.

  • Keep the fish in the water as much as possible when handling and removing the hook.

  • Remove the hook gently. Do not squeeze the fish or put your fingers in its gills. There are hook-removal devices available from most sporting/fishing stores to assist you and the use of barbless or circle hooks makes releasing fish easier.

  • If the fish is deeply hooked, cut the line. Do not yank the hook out. Most fish survive with hooks left in them.

  • Release the fish only after it has gained its equilibrium and can swim upright. If necessary, gently hold the fish upright and move it slowly back and forth.

  • Release the fish in quiet water close to the area where it was hooked.

  • Boat livewell pumps should be run continuously to maintain adequate oxygen levels at all times. A fish's metabolic rate (and stress level) doubles with every 10 degrees Fahrenheit increase in water temperature. Any fish intended for release should be released quickly, as soon as it regains its equilibrium.

  • How long should it take to get a fish back in the water? Try this. When you take a fish out of water, start holding your breath. When you feel the need to breathe, the fish should go back!

* Putting your deep release rig on a rod handle and reel allows you to retrieve it more quickly.

Jim's simple release aid for deep water walleyes

We developed this release aid for deep-caught lake trout but it should work on any bloated fish. We wanted something easy to use, simple, cheap, effective and quick to minimize stress on the fish.

The principle involved is that water pressure basically doubles every 33 feet. Some fish, especially those with a full stomach, can't vent their air bladder. Bloated fish can't dive back down and are exposed to stress and pressure on internal organs which may kill them outright. Anglers try fizzing the fish, burping, or holding the fish in livewells. But the best method is to get the fish back to depth to recompress as quickly as possible.

A simple release tool will facilitate releasing the fish in deep water and recompressing it quickly.

All you need is a 50-foot cord, a weight and a hook. Dull the hook, flatten the barb and attach the hook inline just above the weight with knots at the hook eye and bend. The hook should be pointing down toward the weight.

Anglers who catch deep fish should first vigorously plunge the fish down headfirst to see if they can swim down on their own. If not, use the release aid with a hook that fits snugly over the lower jaw of the fish, drop the weight and fish over the side and let your line freespool to pull the fish down quickly. As the fish goes down, the fish will either pull free on its own or a quick jerk will pop the hook free.

I added the reel for line retrieval and storage. I use a one-pound weight for Flathead Lake monsters but you probably need less than that for most walleyes.

The whole outfit only costs a few dollars for commonly available materials. Idaho has developed a similar release aid and I saw an elaborate one in In-Fisherman several years back but nothing has been as simple and cost-effective as this one.

Using clip weights

Quite a few Montana fishermen use this clip weight technique -- and I don't know who actually spawned the idea in the first place -- but it was tournament champs Lucky Bethel and Dale Gilbert who were spreading the word about them a few years back. A couple of ice fishing clip weights can help to revive exhausted fish in your livewell while reducing the amount of handling a fisherman does on the fish. When exhausted fish roll belly-up, just put a clip weight on each of their lower front fins. Those weights help hold the fish upright so they can recover more quickly in the steady wash of water flowing through the livewell.

Then just close the livewell lid and continue fishing. As soon as the fish is revived and feeling strong again, you can hear the fish banging the clip weights on the bottom and sides of the livewell as they swim. Then remove the clip weights and release the walleye back into the lake or reservoir.

Remember to keep your livewell pumps flowing to provide maximum oxygen for the fish. Release the walleyes as soon as they're strong again to keep time in the livewell to a minimum. And, once again, be gentle in your handling of these and all fish you plan to release.

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