I’ve seen the recent social media and posts of an angler catching a good number of some very large, trophy class walleye, keeping them all and the comments from other anglers, some critical, some supportive. It was obvious from reviewing this that there is a lot of misconceptions and/or simply misunderstood perceptions of the reality of the FWP regulations on walleye in the Missouri River below Holter.
Fact is, the walleye limits on the river below Holter were not adopted for the purpose of protection, preservation, or even sustaining a walleye fishery. Several years ago, the FWP Commission adopted a “no limit on walleye” regulation on the Missouri River below Holter Dam. This was done contrary to the FWP staff recommendations. FWP had documented that the walleye population in the river had no detrimental impacts on the trout fishery. But in some electro fishing observed an increase in walleyes in the system after one of the high water years….that flushed fish from the upper reservoirs. The flushing in high water years has been happening for decades and did create at one time, what I called a “world class fishery”…with the absolute best fishing I’ve had in my entire life. Yet, some people became concerned and thought with the increase in walleye numbers, that walleye would take over the river system and ruin the “blue ribbon trout fishery”…..ignoring the historical data showing how walleye and trout had successfully co-existed in the river for decades. We had a quality blue ribbon trout fishery and a world class walleye fishery several years ago prior to that action.
The sole purpose of the “no limit” regulation proposed by the FWP Commissioner was to suppress the walleye population. I asked one of the Commissioners what the justification was for their action and was told “it was purely political”….which is not what should dictate management. The FWP department had no choice because the Commission is a quasi-judicial committee with unlimited powers appointed by the Governor and they set the rules.
A few years ago, the Department amended the regulation below Holter and established a 20 fish limit because of the negative bias and message the no limit regulation sent. This again, was not for the purpose of managing for a sustainable walleye fishery, it still is in place to suppress the walleye numbers.
Some anglers would still like to see walleyes eradicated from the system if possible, which is sad. The trout fishery has continued to be outstanding….with numbers of trout per mile at a sustained very high level and walleye numbers are minimal in comparison.
The irony of the past Commission actions were in the very next year, after the no walleye limit to protect the trout, they then doubled the harvest limits for the trout. Seemed a bit hypocritical to act one year to protect the trout and then double the limits?
The life cycle and typical seasonal migrations of walleye create a situation in the river, where numbers of fish will concentrate in relatively small areas and are very susceptible to angler harvest….because they will be in the same place, same time, every year and because of current and structure in very specific spots.
I can tell you that some 40+ years ago, I can remember doing something similar in catching and keeping everything I caught. I distinctly remember carrying a huge stringer of fish, across the dam one night that I can still remember how much it hurt my fingers to carry that stringer…yet never giving it a second thought as to what impact it had on the resource.
Years later, in the lower river…the first day I fished it, we got 13 walleyes averaging about 7 lbs. each. I released them all. I then invited the Great Falls FWP Fishery manager to come fish and show me how, and I would tag some fish for them. We fished 4 hours, catching 5 walleye from 5.5 to 10.5#’s. He couldn’t believe it but took samples prior to releasing the fish and later told me those fish average 13 ½ years of age. Wow!
In later years, on the Missouri River, I truly did have some of the best walleye fishing I’ve ever had all across the US and Canada, but rarely if ever keeping any, because the population was relatively low. Numbers had fluctuated year to year, with the high water flushing and because it hadn’t been highly pressured and high water flushing years put a few fish back into the system to somewhat sustain a fishery.
I can tell you now, after the no limit regulation was implemented and people kept unlimited numbers, the lower river fishery is no longer what it used to be. At best now a great day, I might be able to catch 1/3 of what I used to. One angler I spoke with one day was bragging about the number of 10# fish he caught and had kept, but yet complaining his personal best had not gotten any better. If every large fish that is caught is kept, logically, a 10# fish that is most likely 10-13 years old, never gets a chance to grow any larger…he probably will never catch the 12 or 13# fish he’d like.
If a person wants to harvest everything they catch up to the established limits….that is their right. But they should also know, excessive harvest of fish in a system that is not being managed with an intent to sustain a good healthy population, simply reduces the quality of the fishery over the long term. When it gets bad enough, people will quit fishing it as it isn’t worth the time or effort and it will eventually come back, but when it takes 10-12 years to replace one of those 10’#’s you’ve kept, it may not be in my lifetime.
I would encourage anglers to consider selective harvest, keeping some good 15-20” as eaters and consider letting the larger fish go.
Anyone should be able to see what excessive harvest does….for example when FWP did the reward tag program on Canyon Ferry…they got a 60% return in 60 days. You all saw what happened with 20 fish limits and excessive harvest on Canyon Ferry. We went from a “world class fishery” to a place I quit fishing as there is not a fishery in the country that can sustain a quality population with harvest at those levels. Fortunately, limits have been changed and efforts are now being made to try to have a quality fishery, and it does appear to be improving….but it takes years to see the results.
All I can conclude with, is I am glad many anglers understand our fisheries are not an unlimited resource and that FWP does not manage some areas for walleye. I hope it never gets to the point that seasons are changed to close fishing…like many areas in the mid-west to provide protection during certain timeframes because of the concentrations during the walleye life cycle….but if the resource is abused it may be the only way to preserve and protect it and sustain a population. This isn’t likely on the Missouri River below Holter because of the priority to manage the blue ribbon trout fishery….that I understand and agree with. It just doesn’t mean walleye have to eradicated to do so…history proves how well they both co-existed for decades.
There is nothing wrong with catching a trophy ….I kept and mounted my first 10# walleye. For many, that is a once in a lifetime event. Today, I would encourage pictures, taking measurements and getting a graphite mount, so the fish doesn’t have to be killed. I caught one walleye in the Missouri River that had been caught and tagged by FWP. That fish was 23 years old per FWP…..and a very rare thing. It was released so another angler would maybe have the chance another day for the experience of catching a fish of a lifetime.
Please consider the impacts of what you do, and do not abuse the resource. Keeping some nice eaters and releasing the prime spawners is one of the best ways to help ensure we have a future fishery.
Steve Harada – Montana Walleyes Unlimited Executive Director