Updated: 6:21 a.m.
When Otter Tail County opens Minnesota’s fishing season by hosting the 73rd annual Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener this weekend, some aspects will look a lot like past years: Lots of media, visits by dignitaries and a chance for the local community to promote tourism.
But anglers won’t have to make the drive to Otter Tail County to join this year’s festivities. They won’t even have to own a boat. All they need is a fishing rod and a smart phone.
Anyone can compete in a virtual fishing derby this year: They catch a walleye from any public water body in Minnesota, use an app on their phone to submit a photo, then let the fish go.
The idea was in the works last year, before the Governor’s Fishing Opener event was postponed due to COVID-19. This year, it made sense to have a statewide event that anyone can participate in, said Erik Osberg, chair of the local planning committee.
"It's safer for everybody involved,” Osberg said. “It's safer for the angler. It's safer for the fish. It's safer for the fisheries. You spread that pressure out."
The virtual derby is part of a trend of fishing tournaments shifting toward a new format known as immediate release, or catch-photo-release. It began about a decade ago, but grew more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as organizers tried to find ways to host pandemic-safe events.
The approach is gaining advocates, who say fish that are caught and quickly released are less likely to die afterward. And the virtual nature can ease crowding on heavily fished lakes and open up tournaments to a wider group of anglers.
It's an alternative to the traditional catch-hold-release tournament, in which anglers would race to shore with their catch and crowd around a weigh-in station to see how it stacked up against competitors.
There were photos and bragging rights before the fish was finally returned to the water, but not in the same location where it was caught.
"It's no surprise that what we call delayed mortality was happening from the lack of oxygen,” said Vern Wagner, an avid bass angler who co-founded a conservation nonprofit called Anglers for Habitat.
Wagner helped develop best practices for fishing tournaments in the state, including keeping fish in plenty of fresh, oxygenated water during the weigh-in process.
"That really cut down on mortality, but it's still redistributed the fish,” he said. “And you still are going to have some mortality associated with holding them in a live well, putting them in a bag, weighing them on a scale."
Then, about 10 years ago, smartphones entered the scene, and with them, the catch-photo-release tournament.
Instead of taking their fish to shore, anglers in these contests download an app on their phones. They lay the fish on a measuring stick, take a photo, and submit it using the app.
Then they release the fish right back into the water. The whole process typically takes less than a minute.
"There's no question that from an individual fish level, that's a better outcome, and it certainly has a higher likelihood of surviving,” said Jon Hansen, fisheries program consultant with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Hansen said catch-photo-release tournaments reduce the stress on the fish and improve their chances of survival.
"The reality is at the end of the day, some of these fish are in live wells for hours at a time,” he said. “Even with the best fish-handling procedures and fanciest live wells and really well-run weigh-ins, there's going to be some fish that die."
In 2017, the Minnesota DNR issued 36 permits for catch-photo-release contests — less than 10 percent of the total number of fishing tournaments that year, Hansen said. Last year during COVID-19, that number grew to 56 — about 20 percent, he said.
Despite the fact that many pandemic restrictions are beginning to lift, the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing. About a quarter of permits the DNR has issued this year so far have been for catch-photo-release tournaments, Hansen said.
And one of the state’s largest fishing contests — the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, which typically draws more than 10,000 anglers to Gull Lake every winter — was virtual, with participants able to fish on any frozen Minnesota lake.
One of the apps commonly used in tournaments, including this year’s Governor's Opener, is FishDonkey.
Darren Amundson, co-founder of the Minnesota-based company, said many people ask whether cheating is possible when anglers record the size of their fish themselves. But he said the app has built-in anti-cheating software that makes it tough to be dishonest.
“We know the date and time stamp,” he said. “ We know the location, but we don't ever share the location with anyone."
Amundson said having anglers measure the length of the fish actually cuts down on cheating that's been a problem in past tournaments, such as anglers putting weights in a fish's mouth to make it heavier. FishDonkey also requires every angler to submit a video of the fish being released.
Amundson said catch-photo-release tournaments offer other advantages, such as not being limited to a few hours on a certain lake.
"We get a lot of people who are shore fishermen who don't even have boats,” he said. “They fish from their own docks, or they fish just on their local lakes that they know. And so they can enjoy it at their own time, in their own location."
One of the first groups to seize on the new model were student fishing leagues, whose young anglers are usually tech-savvy, but don't always have big boats with live wells or weighing equipment.
Jimmy Bell is president of the Student Angler Tournament Trail, a volunteer nonprofit that works to increase fishing opportunities for youth. The group organized about a dozen events last year, all catch-photo-release.
Bell said the format is a good fit for student anglers, who grew up and are comfortable with using cell phones and computers.
"Technology isn't exciting to the kids anymore,” he said. “What we find is new and exciting to the students is getting outdoors."
Bell said he thinks eventually, all Minnesota fishing tournaments will involve anglers documenting their fish’s size and letting it go. He thinks that would be a good thing.
But not all tournaments have made the switch. Peter Perovich, president of Minnesota BASS Nation, said his organization currently doesn’t hold any catch-photo-release bass fishing contests, although some of its 36 member clubs do.
Perovich said the organization’s members are conservation-minded and conscious of hooking mortality, which he said is relatively low. With youth fishing contests, there’s a teaching moment during the weigh-in process that is lost with catch-photo-release, he said.
“With a virtual tournament, I think we're missing another aspect of education here with these kids, and learning how to handle these fish and wildlife, the proper way to make sure that they aren't damaged or hurt,” he said.
And Perovich laments the loss of a camaraderie around the weigh-in station that doesn’t exist in a virtual tournament. With an app-based tournament, fishing becomes a more singular sport, he said.
“Everybody just kind of does their thing,” he said. “They send it in on their app, they take their boat out of the water, they go home.”
The DNR supports the move toward catch-record-release tournaments. Hansen said the agency may offer incentives, such as reduced permit fees, to encourage the shift.
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