The Value of Lake Trout Fisheries and Live Release

Written By: Jim Davis
Sandy Bay Resort Inc.
Originally Published in the September/October 1995
issue of The Outfitter Magazine.


In 1987 research, conducted at Parry Sound, on the survival of released angler-caught lake trout, showed that they have a very high rate of survival. Almost 100 lake trout were caught at depths of 80 feet by anglers, and then released during extremely warm conditions when surface water temperatures ranged as high as 25 degrees Celsius. The released lake trout were kept for 48 hours on tethers that allowed them to return to deep water. They were brought up and examined before final release. Survival rates during the test were about 85%.

During the test we noted that the biggest cause of mortality was from exhausted trout not having the strength to swim back to deep water before being further weakened by the very warm surface waters. I subsequently invented a weight, with a retrieval line, that can be hung on the trout’s jaw as it lies upside down on the surface. The weight can tow the tired trout back down to proper depths and temperatures where it is then removed by the retrieval line.

There was one other very important aspect of these experimental results. Every trout that had the strength to swim down on its own survived. There was no hidden or delayed mortality. After I invented the weight, it was used during the experiment to return three trout declared “dead” to deep water. These trout also survived.

Since 1987 we have had considerably more experience with the live-release of lake trout and in the use of the weight, where needed. We are confident that our success in releasing lake trout now exceeds 98 per cent – in other words we “lose” less than one trout in fifty that we wish to release. The experience includes more than 1,500 trout caught by myself, my charter clientele, retired district biologist Lloyd Thurston, and several of my guests fishing on their own over the last three years. Lake trout are “lost” only if seriously injured by hooks, line, etc. Another fortuitous circumstance is that large lake trout are easier to handle, and thus we had our greatest success releasing the larger trout.

The live-release success with lake trout has very important fishery management implications for tourism. Lake trout are a species extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation. Adults lay far fewer eggs compared to more prolific species like pike and walleye. They are slow to mature, females needing seven years, compared to five for walleye. Most accessible lake trout fisheries have been badly over-exploited. Live-release strategies permit maximizing recreation without harming the fishery. I have estimated that I could achieve ten times the economic return from a given piece of water for live-release vs. harvest. In our housekeeping operation that would be as much as $4,000 per lake trout accidentally killed. This is based on the assumption that some spectacular lake trout fishing will satisfy more anglers with our otherwise mediocre fishery.

The ability to live-release lake trout so successfully opens up some very attractive management options for tourism.

Strategies incorporating size limits need successful live-release of the protected sizes. Here at Parry Sound, one of our options is a maximum size limit of 24” we will be protecting mature trout. Research has shown that natural reproduction in lake trout is proportional to the numbers of mature females present. This is different than for a species like walleye where climatic conditions during the first month(s) after spawning are more critical. Our objective is to maximize natural reproduction. However, a very nice spin-off for tourism will be the presence of large numbers of “trophy” size trout in our fishery. And this is why the greater success in releasing large lake trout was such a pleasant finding.

A second live-release strategy has been harvest reduction by implementation of a one lake trout daily creel limit. With the high success of live-release, anglers can get in a days fishing, by releasing their catch. The one fish limit allows them to keep (subject to the maximum size limit) at least one injured fish, or late in the day, one anyway if so desired.

Further harvest reduction was achieved by shortening the harvest season considerably. Traditionally this would have meant closed season, and no lake trout fishing business. In our case, live-release seasons were implemented instead of a complete closure.

There has however, been one option that I have not been able to get adopted. A portion of Parry Sound (often called the Big Sound to differentiate it from the town of the same name) was closed in 1987 to protect an important group of natural lake trout. Although very important during the initial stages of the rehabilitation of the Big Sound lake trout fishery, the closure has now served its purpose and is no longer needed. In addition we now have solid evidence that these important trout can be adequately protected by live release rules. I proposed that a portion of the closed area be designated live-release only. Such an area would have excellent fishing, and would have good promotional value for tourism. Unfortunately, our new fisheries managers out of Owen Sound seem to have little sympathy with the basic concept of live-release. They do not have experience with live-release, and so do not have confidence in it. For that matter they seem to have little interest in angling, or in the special needs of tourism, as most of them are not anglers.

This problem has been compounded by opposition from local anglers to live release. These anglers traditionally fish to harvest. In the absence of support and education on the merits of live release from our fishery managers – that type of opposition is expected. Although the concept of a special live release area is to be considered again in three years, I see little reason for optimism that those opposed will become more enlightened than they are now. Consequently, since the closure is no longer needed, I will just propose that it be re-opened according to the new maximum size limit, short harvest season and low creel limit regulations which now afford very adequate protection.

However, I still think that special live-release-fishing-only areas for lake trout are a very good idea that has a great deal of appeal for tourism, so I would suggest that any of you, with lake trout problems and potential, and with more enlightened fishery managers than we have here, consider it. You do not need to commit a whole lake to this scheme. In the Big Sound, the area that has been closed since 1987, is about one mile by six miles. There is every indication that the natural lake trout that it was supposed to protect have, in fact, mostly remained inside of it, protected. This area is not a closed in bay. It is an open ended channel, so the lake trout could have moved out freely in two directions. The fact that they have not done so is a strong indication that special management areas could be used effectively. However, there are just as strong indications that planted lake trout are not as likely to be stay-at-homes. Consequently, if special area management is to be considered, it would also be important to develop natural populations of lake trout. 

Anyone wishing to discuss this concept with me further can contact me at (705) 342-5412.


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