Handling and Releasing Walleye

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March 23rd, 2022

The walleye is the number one sport fish in Ontario. It is the fish that brings the most people to the lakes, rivers and reservoirs of Superior Country. Northern Ontario has incredible walleye fisheries, from sprawling lakes like Lac des Mille Lacs, to river systems such as the Albany and Ogoki. There are even walleye fisheries on parts of Lake Superior and Lake Nipigon. Superior Country also has generous populations of walleye, which allows for sustainable harvest of these fish. However, there are regulations in place in most parts of the region that require fish be properly measured to ensure they are legal. You may find yourself releasing walleye because of a slot size, or a minimum or maximum size. Large walleye are old, and prime breeders and should always be considered for release. The walleye fisheries of Superior Country have benefited greatly from selective harvest. And everyone knows a 15 to 17-inch walleye is the best eating size. Knowing how to properly handle and release walleye is key to successful selective harvest.

Releasing walleye

Measuring Walleye

Many people use a retractable construction style tape to measure fish and that will certainly do the job. One thing to be aware of is that these tapes can rust if left exposed to the elements. That is problematic if it gets stuck and won’t pull out. Cloth “sewing” tapes are another option and are reasonably compact. A popular option is to buy a stick-on measuring tape and mount it on your boat where it is easily accessed. On tin boats, this can be on the bench, live well or inside the hull. Stand alone measuring boards made of stainless steel or aluminum are quite common and handy. These often are designed to be bump boards, meaning one end is curved so you can push the snout of the walleye up to the board.

Walleye - Gord Ellis Sr

When it comes to measuring walleye (or any fish) properly I will defer to the Ontario regulation book. This is what it says, verbatim:

To find the length of a fish:

–          Measure from the tip of the mouth with the jaws closed to the tip of the tail.

–          Compress the tail fin lobes to give the maximum possible length.

That is the nut of it. It is up to the angler to make sure you have measured fish and done it properly. If a Conservation Officer stops you and you have improperly measured fish that are not legal, you can be relatively sure a fine is coming.

Handling Walleye

Walleye, as a benign as they seem, they are quite tricky to handle. The fish have coarse scales, very sharp dorsal spines and gill plates that can slice your hand. A walleye also has a mouthful of teeth second only to a northern pike or muskie. Getting sliced by those vampire teeth can be very painful. I generally wear a wet cotton or fleece glove when I handle walleye as it provides some grip and protection. Holding a walleye by the wrist of the tail and then supporting it with your other hand under the belly is the safest for both angler and fish. Walleye do not appreciate a lot of handling and will not do well if out of the water for an extended period. Larger ones can be especially vulnerable to over handling, which makes releasing walleye more difficult. When you land a walleye, keep it in the net in the water if you can, especially if you plan to release it. Unhooking the fish in a live well is another option.  A pair of needle nose pliers is a must when unhooking walleye. Hooks are often well embedded, especially jigs. Be very careful if using bare fingers to pull a jig or hook out.

Walleye that are caught from very deeper water can suffer what is called barotrauma as the air bladder becomes inflated. This causes stress and impairment in fish and can cause high mortality after catch and release. Fish with barotrauma sometimes float on the surface after release or will struggle to swim away. In places where size limits are in play, catch and release of walleye in deep water is not an ethical option.

Stringers and Live Wells

Although most of us grew up using stringers to keep walleye on while fishing, they are a terrible device. The chain stringers inevitably break, and you either lose some fish, or the whole stringer disappears. Stringers used in warm summer waters also lead to fish dying and then being drug around decaying in the heat. This ruins the flesh. In places where a live well is legal to transport fish, this a much better option. However, if you know the fish is going to be harvested, killing it and putting it on a cooler with ice is the best way. Fish on ice stay cold and fresh and is much more edible.

Releasing Walleye

A walleye that has been handled well and not dropped or left wrapped up in a net, will release quite well. Hold the fish gently under the belly until it can swim off.  Upon releasing walleye, larger ones should be held by the tail and supported under the belly in the water. Let the fish breathe and don’t force them backward and forward. When a walleye is ready to go, it will swim off. If a fish wants to go belly up, hold it right side up and allow it to regain its equilibrium. Sometime keeping large fish you wish to release in a live well with aerated water will bring it around faster than over the side of the boat. When it gets lively, slip it over the side.

Walleyes are a superb sport fish, great to eat and fun to catch. Handling and releasing them properly is a good way to ensure many great days on Superior Country water for years ahead.