Conservation-Minded Fishing League Format Sweeps Western Wisconsin
by Dr. Jason Halfen
May 15, 2012 - In the face of increasing state regulations of fishing tournaments and community concerns about the impact of competitive angling on local fisheries, a group of innovative, conservation-minded anglers have adopted a novel strategy for conducting weekly walleye tournaments on a set of lakes and rivers in western Wisconsin. These events do not require fish to be transported in livewells to an off-water weigh-in at the end of the event; rather, the length of each fish is documented with a digital photo before it is quickly released back into its native environment. This catch-record-release format ensures that the events have minimal impact on the overall health of the fisheries by eliminating fish mortality associated with livewell transport. Moreover, the 100% release format without an off-water weigh-in, coupled with limitations on the number of competitors, allows the leagues to operate without direct intervention from state regulators. The founders of these western Wisconsin walleye leagues envision this format taking hold in other areas where regulatory or community concerns have negative impacts on club-level competitive angling.
Dr. Jeremy Frigo, one of the founders of the Menomin-Tainter Walleye League , explains how the league was established in 2011: “The original inspiration for starting a walleye league came from the idea of melding the love of walleye fishing with the idea of local competitive fishing. Local multispecies leagues already existed, but nothing specific to walleye. We chose the “catch-record-release” format, introduced by Anglers Insight Marketing (AIM) for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the best thing for the fisheries. The fish are caught, measured, photographed and released. This is not any different from normal fishing in which catch and release is practiced. Second, since all fish are released immediately, we are not tied to any size limits, culling restrictions or daily bag limits. This allows great flexibility. Third, since all fish are immediately released and not brought back to a weigh-in, the process is greatly simplified on a number of fronts,” by eliminating the need for fish handling and weigh-in facilities.
In the Menomin-Tainter Walleye League, each fish is measured on a standardized, league-supplied tournament ruler, and digitally photographed using a league-supplied SD card. Competitors only have access to the rulers and cards while the events are underway, ensuring that any fish registered in the weekly events are caught, photographed, and released during the 3-hour, weeknight competitions. The winners of each night’s competition are determined by the cumulative length of their four longest fish. Since fish are released immediately after being measured and photographed, anglers need not worry about the impact of bag limits or restrictive harvest “slot” limits. The relatively short time commitments, close-to-home locations, and modest weekly entry fees make the competitions accessible to a wide variety of anglers, some of whom still travel over an hour to join in the camaraderie of the league events.
Involvement of young anglers and partnerships with local communities are paramount to the health and growth of these walleye leagues. Dr. Frigo explains, “One of our utmost important goals of the league is to involve young anglers. Last year, we agreed that the greatest example of our success was the fact that parents felt comfortable enough to bring their children and involve them in our activities. As a result, some of these kids have absolutely turned into fishing machines! Not only do the parents have a chance to take their kids out for a great night of fishing, they also get to introduce them to the world of competitive angling in a fun, friendly format that just breeds enthusiasm.” Moreover, “community feedback to our league has been very positive. Essentially, the bad rap (mostly unjustified) was that fishing tournaments kill fish due to the stress of the weigh-ins. Whether this was justified or not, we totally removed that variable from the equation. Overwhelmingly, support came due to conservation of the fisheries being kept at the forefront. That is something we all can feel great about. Last year we caught A TON of walleyes—all which went back to be caught another day.”
Another testament to the success of the catch-record-release format for weekly competitions is that this same format has now been adopted by two other regional walleye leagues. Dr. Frigo explains that these other leagues, “are almost mirror images of our format. Jesse Krook, who fished our league one night with us last year on Lake Tainter, has now established the St. Croix Valley Walleye League. He loved our format so much he begged, pleaded and bought us 5 cheeseburgers each to help him establish a similar league near Hudson, Wisconsin. The response to that league has been huge as well. Likewise, Jason Sullivan and his committee members recently started the Chippewa Valley Walleye League, based out of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Since all of our formats are nearly identical and have such common goals, it will allow for future growth in the direction of uniting the local leagues under one basic entity. In my crystal ball, I see a possible local weekend tournament series, formation of new local leagues and seminars. Essentially, the door is wide open.”
While professional-level bass and walleye tournaments, held on expansive bodies of water with traditional off-water weigh-ins, are likely here to stay, the catch-record-release format adopted by the Menomin-Tainter Walleye League is an excellent adaptation for local events where reducing impacts on smaller fisheries is of paramount importance. In this format, anglers can still enjoy the thrill of the competition and share in each others successes, while still maintaining a strong, 100% live release, conservation ethic. We look forward to watching the Menomin-Tainter Walleye League, and other similar organizations, continue to grow and prosper in years to come.
Dr. Jason Halfen is a multi-species guide and teaching pro based in western Wisconsin. For more information, visit http://www.JasonHalfenOutdoors.com.