I can remember an occasion shortly after beginning my career as a fishery biologist when I was at a sport show talking with a couple of anglers about walleye length limits. At the time, our “company line” was that length limits didn’t work in walleye management—walleyes were meant to be grown and harvested; after all, they taste great. That walleyes are among the best table fare will never change. Fortunately, attitudes of anglers and fishery biologists have shifted over the years and walleye regulations have evolved as well.
Most walleye fisheries have always had bag limits, but these limits generally do little to substantially reduce harvest unless they are overly restrictive, perhaps only a fish or two per day. Bag limits generally work to distribute harvest among anglers (so everyone gets their “fair” share) and perhaps as a way to spread harvest over time (e.g., making a hot bite last a month instead of two weeks).
Another walleye regulation that’s used on some fisheries is a closed season. Typically, seasons are closed to protect walleyes from harvest during the Spawn Period. In extreme cases, long-term closures may be necessary to allow overexploited fisheries to recover. Closed-season regulations vary from state to state or province. In some regions, protection of naturally reproducing walleyes during the spawn may be warranted, while in others closed seasons serve no purpose during the spawn because walleye populations are maintained by stocking, or else anglers have insignificant effects on walleye populations by fishing.
An unintended result of closed seasons is an “opening day” festive atmosphere when the season opens. The publicity, tradition, and excitement generated by the opening of walleye season may be reason enough to continue closed- season regulations in some areas, even if biologically unwarranted.
Managing walleye fisheries with bag limits, and closed seasons in some instances, but with no other restrictions, has been relatively simple. Years ago, however, anglers became more concerned that the harvest of small fish was too high—that walleyes needed a chance to “grow up.” Consequently, some of the first length limits on walleyes often were an attempt to set a socially accepted size at which it was appropriate to harvest walleyes—harvest would only be allowed for fish that were “big enough to keep,” or big enough to fillet. Early length limits were often 13-, 14-, or 15-inch minimums, depending on walleye growth rates, abundance, and what local anglers considered an acceptable size to harvest them.
The evolution of walleye regulations has generally followed a shift in management philosophies from maximum sustainable yield (MSY) to optimum sustainable yield (OSY). Under MSY, fisheries are managed for maximum sustainable harvest—the pounds per acre of harvest that can be sustained over the long-term. Bag limits and minimum length limits maintain some walleye fisheries at or near MSY. Some walleye factories that produce an abundance of eating-size fish also are managed under MSY.
Over the years, anglers have come to desire more than MSY from walleye fisheries, and under OSY, fisheries may be managed for qualities other than maximum yield. The optimum yield, for example, may be one where management goals emphasize high catch rates and harvest, protection of brood stock, or development of a trophy fishery. A regulation used to manage for MSY may be quite different from one intended to create a trophy fishery.
With many different management goals possible under OSY, the variety of walleye regulations has grown. Fishery managers prefer the flexibility to manage individual waters according to their potential and corresponding fishery objectives. Water quality, water quantity, habitat conditions, fish community, angling pressure, population dynamics, and exploitation, as well as other factors, can differ from one water to another, even those in close proximity. Management strategies, including regulations, ideally are tailored to different fisheries, and that has resulted in a proliferation of walleye regulations in some places.
In recent years, walleye management has begun to swing back toward simplification of regulations in some locations. Fishery managers need the flexibility to implement water-specific regulations, but if those regulations confuse anglers, compliance is poor and management goals aren’t met. Some jurisdictions have tried to streamline regulations with a “suite” or “tool box” of a few regulations that can be applied to different waters. Length-limit choices often are based on recruitment and growth rates of walleyes in a water body.
Science is always moving forward and so is the sport of fishing. Walleye fisheries in many parts of North America are healthy and have bright futures. As fishery biologists and anglers learn and move forward, we continue to work together for the best for one of our favorite fish.
Daryl Bauer is the fisheries outreach program manager for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Walleye Laws Today