Biology student goes fishing for answers

By Costa Maragos Posted: October 2, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Jessica Butt with a tagged Walleye at Lake Diefenbaker.
Jessica Butt with a tagged Walleye at Lake Diefenbaker. Photo courtesy of Chris Somers.

One of the biggest Walleye tournaments in Saskatchewan takes place this weekend on Tobin Lake near Nipawin, Sask and Master’s student Jessica Butt will be there.

She’s not competing but doing research.

Butt is examining the movement of walleye and sauger after they are caught and released during angling tournaments like the one in Nipawin.

“Angling is such a huge part of the culture in Saskatchewan. I’ve been tagging fish at angling tournaments around Saskatchewan this summer and you can see how important these competitions are to people,” says Butt. “We want to know where these fish go after they’re released. Do they leave the release site? Do they return to the area they were captured? Do they even survive?”

The key to Butt’s research are tiny radio or acoustic tags that are attached to fish, after they are brought to shore and weighed.

“After they are weighed, I attach the tag behind the dorsal fin of the fish and they are released,” says Butt who grew up in Colorado and graduated with a degree in Marine Biology from the University of Oregon.    

“Using a signal the tag gives off, we are able to monitor where the fish go.  We do this for seven days. We have to be close enough with the receiver to pick up a signal and determine the location of the fish. We are more successful finding the fish during the first few days after their release, before they move further away.”

This year, Butt has been tagging fish at three tournaments on Lake Diefenbaker and Last Mountain Lake.

“We were at the tournament in Riverhurst last June and we found fish there did a lot of different things. One fish moved 15 kilometres in a day from where it was released. Some moved across the lake. Some moved along the shoreline and some stayed near the release area,” says Butt.

There are concerns that some fish have problems once they are caught and released at tournaments. Tournament participants usually put their fish in a live well, which is built into the boat.

Even though the water in the well comes from the lake, it is believed that the fish might be stressed because the temperature of the water collected from the lake is warmer than deeper water where the fish are caught.

“The higher temperature causes a lot of stress for the fish and some of them are not able to respond or recuperate,” says Butt.

The goal here, says Butt, is to understand how fish are responding to these angling tournaments and find ways to make sure such events can continue in a positive way.

"In the end we want more fish to survive and have more fish for anglers to fish for,” says Butt who adds that anglers have shown a lot of interest in her research.

The work is funded by the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, The Saskatchewan Walleye Trail, the Regina fish and game league, the Ministry of Environment’s Fish & Wildlife Development Fund and donations from anglers.