Recently the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been at ponds in the area to collect the product of a collaborative effort between the DNR and Mother Nature — walleye fingerlings.
Today’s young walleye netted from the ponds could be tomorrow’s catch of the day.
Last spring millions of walleye fry (just-born, mosquito-sized walleye) were released into the small ponds, where Mother Nature’s done the work of raising the fish. Now 4-6 inches long, the fish are netted to stock larger lakes.
The process begins in the spring when walleye eggs and sperm are harvested on the Pine River where it enters Upper Whitefish Lake. The eggs are fertilized and brought back to the DNR hatchery in Brainerd. Once hatched, the walleye are immediately brought to lakes to be stocked. Some, though, are brought to ponds to grow for the summer.
One such pond is Lizard Pond, also known as Greenwood Lake, south of Crosslake. The DNR has been granted access from a private landowner to get in and out of the pond. Owen Baird and Andy Wiebusch, both DNR Fisheries specialists, visited the pond Wednesday, Oct. 2, to gather the fingerlings. By ice-in they will have made several trips to the pond to collect young walleye.
On the back of their truck is a giant metal tank holding 300 gallons of water. Weibusch said the tank can hold one pound of fish per gallon of water.
Lizard Pond was stocked with 700,000 fry at the beginning of the summer. Wiebusch said that usually the DNR sees a 10 percent return on that number, so around 70,000 walleye fingerlings will be harvested from Lizard Pond this fall.
“That’s just Mother Nature giving them the right food at the right time,” Wiebusch said on how many of the fry survive.
Twenty-one nets are placed around the perimeter of Lizard Pond. Similar to minnow nets, they funnel fish into a trap that they can’t swim out of. The nets are about 50 feet long. Most ponds have between 12-30 nets set.
Generally the net catches more than just walleye. The majority of the catch is fingerlings, but turtles, water bugs, tadpoles, salamanders, crayfish and other animals also swim into the net and are brought up into the boat. Everything’s released, either back into the pond or into a new lake with the walleye.
As they travel the lake pulling up the nets, Wiebusch and Baird take the time to repair any minor damage they discover. Occasionally, they said, a muskrat will become trapped in the nets and chew its way out. Rarely, a mammal or diving bird will be caught in the net and not find a way out, and then drown.
Lizard Pond works well for fingerling raising, Wiebusch said, because it experiences winter kill each year. That means there are no larger fish that would be predators to the young walleye.
After they’re pulled from the water, the walleye are put into a trough on the boat and brought back to the landing, where they’re weighed.
Ideally, Wiebusch said, there will be 15-35 walleye per pound of fish. This year Lizard Pond is averaging around 25 fingerlings per pound.
The amount of walleye the team will gather in a day is dependent on many factors. The fish really start moving around, Baird and Wiebusch said, when the weather gets cooler or there’s a cold wind. The fish are most likely looking for food for the winter, and when they are on the move they swim into the traps.
On Oct. 2, Wiebusch and Baird collected more than 90 pounds of walleye from the 21 nets in Lizard Pond. Not a record day, they said, though they did remark on how a few of the nets had respectable amounts of fingerlings.
They said the Brainerd DNR Fisheries office hopes to gather a total of 8,000 pounds of fingerlings this fall. Last fall ponds yielded around 6,200 pounds. Some lakes in southern Minnesota, especially in farmland area, will produce higher numbers of fish because of nutrient runoff from farms.
Wiebusch and Baird said that while it increases fingerling counts, the runoff is environmentally unhealthy in the overall scope of the lake. In central Minnesota, the lakes may not produce as many fingerlings but they do have better overall health and clarity.
Once on the truck, the walleye are brought to a public access on their new home. A large hose attaches to the tank on the truck, a valve opens and the fish are released to grow into trophy catches and future shore lunches.
The walleye gathered Oct. 2 were put into South Long Lake south of Brainerd. Other area lakes that are being stocked this year include Clear Lake, 59 pounds; Kimball Lake, 74 pounds, Mitchell Lake, 236 pounds; Ossawinnamakee, 450 pounds; Ruth, 400 pounds; and Upper Mission Lake, 512 pounds.
While some residents might not see their favorite lake on that list, many other area lakes are stocked in the spring with walleye fry — sometimes with millions of fish.
Wiebusch said the fingerling netting will continue until ice-in, marking the end of the year’s work raising a future generation of walleye. Then the Fisheries department turns to winter work and, eventually, preparations for next year’s generation of walleye.
Kate Perkins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at twitter.com/KateAtEcho.