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Angler's fish tale presents learning opportunity

Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS — Not that many years ago, it was relatively common practice for anglers fishing sturgeon on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River to hoist big fish up by the gill plates and hold them vertically for photos.

However well intentioned those anglers might have been, chances are many sturgeon died after being handled that way, even if the fish were released. Fish aren't made to be held out of the water vertically, especially large fish, because the weight of their bodies tears the connective tissue holding their internal organs in place.

The consequences of that simple law of gravity can be fatal.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't do the same thing before I realized the danger. My intentions were good, I simply didn't know any better.

Much better — and this applies to all species — is to hold fish horizontally for photos and support their bellies. That can be difficult with large sturgeon, but sitting down and holding the fish across your lap results in great photo memories. On this I speak from experience.

Educational campaigns by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others have helped reduce the frequency of those vertical death grips, and most of the sturgeon photos I encounter these days show fish being held horizontally.

That's good to see.

Avoid the eyeballs

Another handling method that fortunately has almost completely fallen by the wayside is the practice of grabbing northern pike or other fish by the eye sockets to keep them from thrashing.

It's hard to fathom today, but the technique even was promoted in how-to fishing books back in the day. Vlad Evanoff, in his 1964 book, "The Freshwater Fisherman's Bible," described it this way:

"Experienced anglers and guides sometimes grab the pike in the gills or by placing a thumb and forefinger into the eye sockets."

There's even an illustration showing how to grip the eye sockets. Egads. ...

I saw firsthand the impact of that practice more than 20 years ago during a Manitoba fly-in fishing trip. Two of us were catching walleyes in a shallow bay not far from camp when we spotted a large northern pike on the surface of the water.

The fish was upright but obviously disoriented and didn't move as we boated up for a closer look. We were right next to the pike when I noticed its eyes were punched in. I don't think it would be a stretch to assume someone had grabbed the fish by the eye sockets before releasing it.

In the process, they maimed it with good intentions.

I thought about that again this week when a reader called with the news that a friend had caught a 36-inch walleye he released.

For context, the Minnesota state record walleye, which has held its place in the books since 1979, measured 35.8 inches and weighed 17.8 pounds.

I'm a sucker for a good fish story, especially when it involves a potential 36-inch walleye, so I reached out to the angler who caught the fish to get a firsthand account. He made a point of saying that releasing the walleye, a pre-spawn female, was a priority and that he was more concerned about getting it back in the water than he was about a potential state record.

He said he measured the walleye with a yardstick he kept in his fish house.

Change of plans

My original plan was to write a column about the experience of catching and releasing such a special fish, a plan that turned into a moral struggle the next day when I saw the photo.

I immediately was skeptical about the walleye measuring 36 inches, but I'm willing to give an angler the benefit of the doubt when it comes to fish tales.

More concerning was the way he held the fish: vertically, with one hand under a gill plate and the other hand around the top of the head in what looks to be an eyeball grip. Before he even sent the photo, he said he wasn't holding the fish by the eye sockets, even though it appears that way.

I zoomed the photo as tight as I could go, but the positioning of his fingers made it impossible for me to see the fish's eye sockets. A second photo of a buddy holding the fish was only slightly better.

I shared the photos with a couple of friends to get their thoughts, and their reaction wasn't favorable.

Even if he's not gripping the fish by the eye sockets, perception is reality, and I've been in this business long enough to know what kind of reaction the photo would get from readers.

So, in the end, I decided forgo writing a column about catching the fish and instead use the encounter as a reminder of the importance of holding fish properly for photos before releasing them.

It's not my intent to belittle the angler for the way he handled the fish in the heat of a very exciting moment. He was completely sincere in his desire to release the fish unharmed.

The fate of this particular walleye and whether it actually measured 36 inches will never be known, but it was a trophy by any measurement, and I would never want to diminish the excitement of that.

Here's hoping the fish survived; I know the angler who caught it feels the same way.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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