Careful release of little walleyes help them grow to be big walleyes on Lake Erie
A couple friends and I recently went casting for walleye western Lake Erie off Port Clinton, and we found out what a lot of other fishermen also have found: loads of undersize walleye that have to be released because they do not stretch to the minimum 15-inch keeper length.
That was OK, for we had a ball nonetheless, landing about 100 fish in five hours –some 60 of them walleye and the rest big sheepshead, channel catfish, white bass, and white perch. But we went home with just 6 legal walleye for the table. About 15 of the remainder were 14 to 14-7/8 inches, likely from the decent 2014 hatch, and the rest 8 to 10 inches or so, from the near-record 2015 hatch.
All of which meant we had a lot of catch and release to do. Which brings up the point of the foregoing: Be careful with how you handle small fish if you want them to grow up into big fish, big enough to fillet and fry, or photograph or mount.
Given the great numbers of small walleye out there, western Lake Erie should be providing some fantastic walleye action for the next three years and beyond. Indeed, those slightly short walleye we returned in early June likely will reach legal length by mid to late July after stuffing themselves with mayflies, which currently are hatching en masse and in effect slowing down fishing action.
Given typical walleye casting gear – medium to medium-light rods and 8- to 10-pound-test line – small fish are readily and quickly landed. Good. That will not tire them to exhaustion. But now the rubber meets the proverbial road. Take your pliers and shake off the little guys over the water without even handling them, if possible. The less handling the better. Wet your hands first if you must hold the fish to remove the hook to minimize disruption of the protective slime layer on the skin. And don’t squeeze the fish tightly.
If you must net the fish, rather than swinging it in, try to use a net made of rubber or non-abrasive webbing to avoid scratching the fish’s skin. Again handle the fish as little and as quickly as possible.
If you are trolling, be especially attentive to your planer boards and any change in behavior or track. Small fish may not be able to pull a small board backward or trip a release off big boards and dragging them around for a long time could exhaust them.
Walleye are fairly hardy and the vast majority will “make it” when handled with care. But just because they seem to be super-plentiful, that is no reason to be unethical and careless or unworried about rough handling. Good fishermen do that better than that.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife offers a thorough primer on fish handling that makes for worthwhile, thoughtful refresher reading even for experienced anglers. It can be found on-line at wildohio.gov. Click on fishing, then fishing basics and catch and release guidelines.
Just remember, the fish you save may be your own, for next time you land it.