Inside the Outdoors: Could pandemic lead us to rethink angling tourney rules?

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Several weeks ago the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources informed Minnesota fishing tournament directors that they would not be permitted to have in-person, on-shore weigh-ins at their 2020 tournaments. The reason, as anyone can guess, was the social distancing orders that have been in place over the past several months, orders issued by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to slow the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Then, just last week, the DNR relaxed this restriction in response to a change by Governor Walz in state social distancing guidelines. The DNR’s 2020 tournament rules will now allow in-person, on-shore weigh-ins. The catch is that—if the revised rules are followed—these gatherings are supposed to be limited to no more than 25 people, and those participating are still supposed to remain at least six feet apart.

Exactly how the more than 200 DNR permit-authorized 2020 tournaments will respond to the new guidelines, and how they might attempt to implement the 25-person limitation and social distancing rules, while holding in-person weigh-ins, remains to be seen. Who will enforce these rules—if they will be enforced—similarly remains unanswered. For the record, the majority of these are bass tournaments.

For tournaments that are rich in prizes, and are the most likely to bestow fame on the winners, the post-tournament weigh-in at a central event site has traditionally been the high point where the drama unfolds. It’s where big-name sponsors reel in a great deal of valuable publicity for their products, like boats, angling electronics and outdoor retail goods in general. Even for regional and other smaller tournaments, the on-shore weigh-in has undeniable value in personal bragging rights and publicity.

Fishing tournaments as we know them present two very opposite safety conditions. On the one hand, it should be relatively easy to remain socially distanced in a boat; even easier to be safely distanced from anglers in other boats. But that changes when the fishing part of the tournament ends and the anglers gather to see the crowning of tournament winners, and to enjoy post-competition camaraderie. This is what would present the greatest risk of spreading coronavirus. It’s why the in-person on-shore weigh in for 2020 tournaments was initially prohibited.


It’s likely that many tournament directors and participants are pleased that there is no longer an outright ban on in-person, on-shore weigh-ins, despite the complications of social distancing they’re still supposed to maintain.

If there is a downside to this policy reversal, it may be that an opportunity was missed to experiment on a broad scale with an alternative way to conduct fishing tournaments. Ways, incidentally, that might be better for fish that are caught in these tournaments and eventually released.

When the live weigh-in ban was still in place, the DNR encouraged what might be called “catch-measure-release” tournament formats. “Measure” in this context is not accomplished by holding a fish against the faded inch-ruled markings along the edge of your boat seat. These measurements are taken with mobile phone cameras and “apps,” some of the better known being FishDonkey, iCatch and TourneyX. With FishDonkey, for example, a fish you’ve caught is photographed against a standardized, inch-ruled background and images are both recorded and can be entered on an Internet-based “leader board,” which immediately shows the standings among those entered in a tournament.

These tournament “apps” are not the product of the pandemic. They have been motivated at least in part by growing sentiment in favor of immediate, on-the-spot release of fish, since that is the best guarantee of their survival. As hard as organizers try to limit post-tournament fish mortality, some seems almost inevitable when fish spend as much as a day housed in a boat’s live well, then are weighed at a site far from where they were caught, before being released in unfamiliar territory. When air and water temperatures are unseasonably warm, mortality of released fish can be higher.

Telemetric studies—radio tagging to track fish movement—after bass tournaments have shown that fish that are brought to a central weigh-in site and then released may not leave that immediate area for days, weeks or longer. If the release zone happens to be where there is heavy angling pressure, these fish are susceptible to being caught again soon after release. Fisheries biologists also cite “stockpiling” at the release site as leading to over-exploiting of bait fish and other prey populations there. The best argument for immediate release of fish right where they are caught is fish survival, which is most assured when that is done.

Oddly enough, one of the obstacles to more widespread acceptance of catch-measure-release in tournaments may be the way different groups of anglers measure fishing success. Tell a musky fisherman that you’ve caught one, and he’ll ask you how long it was; he might ask you about its girth—the distance around the body—too. Ask a trout angler about her best fish of the season, and this answer, too, will be in inches. In the outdoors media, in Trophy Tales or Reader Shots picture postings, fish size is almost invariably stated in inches; a 54-inch muskie, 29-inch walleye, 22-inch smallmouth or 14-inch crappie.

In most sanctioned bass fishing tournaments, however, it is typically the aggregate weight of fish caught during the event that determines the winners. This is more complicated than an easily verified measure of length; thus has evolved the central weigh-in, with a certified scale—in front of angling peers and spectators—the impartial judge.

But the tide in angling today that favors catch-and-release is a strong argument for treating tournament-caught fish the way we treat fish we catch and promptly release at other times. It may be an idea whose time has almost come.


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