Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Fall stocking takes on added importance

Staff Writer

Glenwood, Minn. Anglers often tell DNR fisheries specialists
Bill McKibbin and Jerry Wendlandt how lucky they are.

They get to work with fish. They wear jeans to work. And far
from the thousands of disillusioned desk jockeys who can spend only
weekends on the lake they get to work outside.

“That’s what we hear from fishermen on 90-degree, flat calm
days,” Wendlandt said. But there’s a flip-side.

Such was the case two weeks ago, when Wendlandt and McKibbin
were two of the throngs of DNR staffers who donned rainsuits,
rubber boots, and gloves to work the agency’s rearing ponds during
the fall stocking ritual.

They’re not complaining. It’s just that launching boats from
soft mud shorelines into even muddier ponds and picking through
hundreds of salamanders and thousands of bullheads to get to a few
4-inch walleyes doesn’t quite parallel the sight of a bass busting
a topwater bait.

But stocking and its $2.4 million per year price tag is the
DNR’s chosen method for making sure there are adequate
opportunities for Minnesota’s favorite fish.

“Stocking has been for many years a very successful program,”
said Ron Payer, the DNR’s program section manager and former chief
of the fisheries division. “In a lot of these lakes, it provides a
walleye fishery where there wouldn’t have been one.”

Rearing ponds

A semi-flat area near a bean field and a small opening in the
cattails sufficed as a launch location at Wendlandt’s and
McKibbin’s first pond.

Like many of the more than 300 rearing ponds across the state,
the pond was on private land. A few of the DNR’s ponds are on
public land like wildlife management areas, but the majority are
accessed via easements on private property.

The majority of fry are stocked directly into lakes in the
spring. The remainder go to rearing ponds for the summer to grow
from mosquito-sized fry to 4- to 6-inch fingerlings. In the spring
of 2003, the DNR stocked nearly 315 million fry into lakes and
rivers; by contrast, just more than 2 million (165,245 pounds)
fingerlings, yearlings and adults were stocked in the fall.

The DNR aims to stock about 160,000 pounds of fingerlings,
yearlings and adults this fall. About 40,000 pounds of that total
will come from the private sector, said Roy Johannes, DNR fisheries
programs consultant and coordinator of the statewide walleye
stocking program.

On this day, the trap nets aren’t the gold mines they sometimes
are. The nets, located at various locations extending out from
shore, were all fairly full, but not with walleyes. On one pond,
tiny, shiny black bullheads outnumbered walleyes
hundreds-to-one.

On the next pond, black and yellow salamanders clung to the
mesh. The good news was most of the walleyes were fingerlings,
rather than the few yearlings found in the first set of nets.

Since the DNR stocks fingerlings on a pounds-per-littoral-acre
basis, larger walleyes like yearlings reduce the total number of
fish stocked.

Plus, bigger walleyes are detrimental to the ponds.

“We try to prevent having any yearling or adult walleye in (the
ponds) so our fry have a good chance of survival,” Johannes said.
“They are eating the rest of the food that would be there for the
fry.”

When they had run all the nets, Wendlandt and McKibbin
transferred the walleyes fingerling and the eating-sized yearlings
alike to an oxygenated tank on the back of a truck.

To the lake

The DNR stocks walleyes into more than 900 lakes in Minnesota on
a consistent basis. In 2003, 271 lakes and two rivers were stocked
with fry and another 359 with fingerlings. So far in 2004, 242
lakes and three streams have been stocked with almost 283 million
fry.

Despite the huge numbers of fish the DNR puts into lakes and
rivers, the vast majority of harvested walleyes are
naturally-produced ones, Payer said.

The DNR’s fry stocking program runs fairly smoothly. One of the
main points of contention with walleye stocking is if the DNR
stocks enough fingerlings to maximize the potential of given lakes,
Payer said.

As has been a common refrain with other fish and animal species,
the yo-yoing weather hasn’t been helpful to the DNR’s fish-stocking
program. With fry survival down, fingerling stocking is more
important than usual.

“This year wasn’t really good for survival,” Johannes said. “We
had June and August that were really tough months for cold weather.
The other thing we saw was other species in the lakes were really
late (spawning) because of the cool time. There may not have been a
lot of forage for those young walleyes in the lakes.”

Wendlandt and McKibbin put about 20 pounds of walleye
fingerlings into Little Chippewa Lake in western Douglas County
during a mid-September stocking run a slow day for the two. On a
good day, they can net and deposit hundreds of pounds of
walleyes.

If running trap nets and sorting through undesirable species to
get the fingerlings is a time-consuming task, the act of putting
them into the lake is but a blip on the stocking radar.

McKibbin attached a pipe to the holding tank, placed it in the
water and opened a valve, releasing hundreds of fingerlings to
begin life anew in a natural lake. After spending hours collecting
the fingerlings, they’re into the lake in less than a minute.

The netting task may have been complete on this day , but the
2004 stocking season is still in its infancy.

“This is what we’ll be doing for the next two months,” McKibbin
said flatly. Given the driving rain, cold temperature and, mostly,
the relative lack of success, there’s an unmistakable blend of
excitement and sarcasm in his words.

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