Walleye fishing is a sport that has evolved in recent years to embrace management practices that have proven very effective for maintaining quality fisheries. Slot restrictions have done wonders to bring back once-great walleye waters, but perhaps the most important shift is the practice of catch and release. Many walleye anglers take to the waters for the pure joy of the sport and are happy to catch, photograph and release fish the once regularly found their way to the stringer. If you are fishing a tournament or are simply headed out to the lake for a day of walleye fishing, follow these basic guidelines to ensure that any fish you intend to release has the best chance possible of survival.
Proper tackle for walleye is critical. While it might seem fun or challenging to take light tackle out for a day of fishing, walleyes that are forced to fight to the point of exhaustion are far less likely to survive. Anglers want to get the fish into the boat and back into the water as soon as possible.
Do not handle fish by grabbing them by the eyes. I can recall a few old-timers back in the day who regularly grabbed fish this way. Walleyes are predator fish that need their keen eyesight in order to feed and survive. It should be fairly obvious to even the casual observer that grabbing a fish by the eyes puts the walleye’s eyesight at risk.
Live bait rigs are far more likely to hook a fish deep. If you haul in a fish that has been hooked in the gullet, simply cut the line and get the fish back into the water. If you have hooked the fish in a way that has caused severe bleeding, put it in the live well or on the stringer and plan to take it home.
Return fish to the water as quickly and gently as possible. Take your photos without over-handling the fish and then place the fish back into the water and make sure it swims away. If the fish seems a bit lifeless, then a common tactic is to grab the fish by the tail and gently swish it back and forth to get water moving past its gills. This is usually enough to get oxygen back into the walleye’s system and it will generally wiggle out of your grip and shoot back down to the depths. Avoid handling any walleye around the gills. This is where they obtain their oxygen and any handling has the potential to damage their fragile gills.