GRAND FORKS -- A proposal regarding fish transport regulations in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s draft fishing proclamation for the next two years beginning April 1, 2020, has some anglers up in arms, but department officials say there’s no real cause for alarm.
Under the draft proclamation, two fillets would be counted as one fish during transport and must be packaged in such a way that they “can be readily separated and counted.”
In other words, not frozen into a big ball or cut up into small chunks, a practice that has never made sense to me anyway.
The kicker in the draft proclamation is language that “each individual portion of the meat removed from a fish is considered a fillet.”
Technically, that would mean anglers who cut out walleye cheeks -- a delicacy with a texture unlike any other part of the fish -- before transport could be counted as having two fish instead of one if they also fillet that fish and are checked by a warden.
Game and Fish highlighted the proposal, along with a handful of other proposed changes, during the recent round of statewide advisory board meetings with hunters and anglers. Not surprisingly, the fish transport language garnered by far the most attention.
Many anglers have gotten used to chunking or “zippering” their fish -- cutting the fillets apart at the lateral line to remove a row of tiny bones -- and anglers who keep the cheeks from larger walleyes are worried the proposal could become burdensome.
Typically, walleyes have to be 20 inches or larger before anglers worry about cutting out the cheeks. Otherwise, the piece of meat isn’t large enough to justify the effort.
The concern is that that small piece of meat could be counted as a fillet.
“I think we’ve heard from pretty much every one of the people in this state that keep the cheeks,” said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “You know by experience not a lot of people cut out the cheeks, but most people don’t keep 20-plus-inch walleyes, either. But those who do, those cheeks are valuable.”
Keep in mind, too, that the transport language is only a proposal at this point and could be amended before it goes to the governor for final approval.
The idea behind the proposal wasn’t to penalize anglers who keep walleye cheeks, said Robert Timian, enforcement chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck.
“In my mind to use a fishing term, that’s kind of a red herring,” Timian said. “Almost anybody can look and see that those little round things are not part of a fillet.”
The language, perhaps, could be amended to say two fillets, excluding cheeks, count as one fish, or something to that effect, Timian says.
“Our guys don’t encounter cheeks in the fish that much, and most of the wardens, we’d instruct the wardens if you can readily identify them as two little round cheeks, don’t even bother to count them,” he said.
That runs contrary to much of the chatter on social media since word about the proposal came out.
“They’re making it sound like everybody in the world cuts the cheeks out and that they’re going to get fined for taking cheeks,” Timian said. “That’s simply not the case.”
Instead, he said, the goal is to minimize the time wardens have to spend counting bits and pieces of fish that just as easily could be transported as fillets.
Neither wardens nor anglers come away happy from that scenario.
“One thing we always hear from the public is, ‘You guys need to get after these boys taking more than their limit,’ ” Timian said. “That means we’ve got to count fish. Having two fillets and being able to easily see them benefits both sides. It makes it easier for us to count and we don’t have to start dumping fish out.”
That’s not too much to ask, considering many states require anglers to leave a 1-inch patch of skin on the fillet during transport. Or, in the case of saugers on Lake of the Woods, transported in the round to avoid being counted as a walleye, which has a lower limit.
“Quite frankly, most people that fillet their fish, they do the two fillets and call it good until they get home,” Timian said. “That’s a vast majority, but there are fishermen that do other things with the fillets. For most fishermen, this wouldn’t really be any change. In fact, a lot of them think it’s the way it is right now.”