The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has announced it will cut back on the number of fingerling walleye it stocks statewide as it maintains its commitment to stocking young fry.
It is a move that will end stocking for now in three area lakes and lower the amount of fingerlings going into eight others in the Glenwood Area DNR’s work range.
The decision comes in response to an analysis of the state’s accelerated walleye stocking program over the past 12 years. The state stocked 110,000 pounds of fingerlings last year, with roughly 45,000 pounds of the total purchased from commercial operations at a cost of $840,000.
DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said the DNR plans to reduce the amount of fingerlings being stocked statewide by about 25,000 pounds, or about a 20 percent decrease, while speaking at the DNR’s annual Roundtable in Bloomington earlier this month.
The move comes with some scrutiny after the DNR asked for and just received fee increases on fishing licenses, among other things, during last year’s legislative session. In 2018, the cost of a resident fishing license will increase $3 to $25.
“I’m pretty disappointed, especially after they came to us for a license fee increase and we stood behind them so they had extra revenue to get more things accomplished,” Alexandria’s Gene Sullivan said. “Now all of a sudden, they’re cutting back 20 percent. I guess I don’t quite understand it.”
Sullivan is the president of the local Viking Sportsmen Club. The Viking Sportsmen have invested energy and money of their own to aggressively stock Alexandria area lakes with walleye fingerlings since 2007, in addition to what the state stocks.
The state stocks walleye in 1,074 lakes and rivers, according to Pereira. Up to 85 percent of the statewide walleye harvest is provided by the state’s largest lakes and a handful of others where walleyes naturally reproduce, he said.
Pereira said fingerling walleye cost nearly $1 each in the fall, when they are stocked. Fry are released in the spring and come at a cost of pennies to the fish.
Walleye numbers were declining in the late 1990s when the public called for an accelerated stocking program. The program doubled the number of fingerlings the DNR stocks on 254 lakes across the state identified by area supervisors.
“We’ve carried that increased stocking for at least 15 years now,” Glenwood Area Fisheries supervisor Dean Beck said. “Have we made a difference? Have we moved the needle? In some cases we did, some cases we didn’t. Some cases we saw declines.”
Its impact locally
At a statewide level, Pereira said 70 percent of the lakes in the accelerated stocking program saw no improvement.
Locally, the Glenwood Area DNR stocks 73 lakes that have public access with walleyes, either fingerlings or fry. Of those, 27 were in the accelerated stocking program. Beck said three lakes in their work area will have their fingerling stocking discontinued as a result of the statewide cutdown – Indian and Vermont in Douglas County and Leven Lake in Pope County.
“We just can’t continue to pour fingerlings that are dollar bills in there and not see more return,” Beck said. “Each of these lakes is full of small, hungry northern pike.”
Many of the shallow, clear bodies of water in the area feature habitat that is more conducive to high pike and bass numbers, species that are natural predators for young walleye. Bass and Pike also compete for the same food sources that walleyes rely on, such as yellow perch.
“It’s truly frustrating to me when I talk to anglers, and they say we want more walleyes but we know there’s a load of northern pike and bass in there taking up space,” Beck said. “Yet they’re throwing them back and won’t keep any.”
Beck said the Glenwood staff has eight lakes in their work area in the accelerated stocking program that they have documented some success on. Those lakes, that will continue to be stocked at current levels, are Darling, Geneva, Latoka, L’Homme Dieu, Lobster, Mill, Stowe and Pelican Lake. The eight lakes where they saw no change due to the higher stocking densities are Aaron, Agnes, Brophy, Cottonwood, Grove, Henry, Oscar and Scandinavian. Those lakes will continue to be stocked, but at a rate that is back down to their base recommended levels.
“We might do a little less stocking toward total poundage, but I think we’re going to gain some efficiencies,” Beck said of the impact locally. “I hope people understand. It’s a major program expenditure and by gosh we should be getting a return from it.”
How well does stocking work?
There are plenty of mixed opinions on how well stocking works.
The DNR is not seeing the increases in walleye numbers they want to see through netting surveys in many Minnesota lakes. There are anglers who question the effectiveness of those netting surveys and some around Alexandria say they see the benefits while on the water.
Sullivan said the success was overwhelming not long after the Viking Sportsmen first started their fingerling stocking program in 2007.
“We were catching those fish,” Sullivan said. “Even when we stocked them in the fall, we were still catching them through the ice, eight inch and 10-inch walleyes.”
Sullivan said the walleye fishing right now is not what it was five years ago on many local waters. He theorizes that might have to do with the emergence of zebra mussels.
“We’re not accustomed to fishing water that is clear 20 to 23 feet down, depending on the day,” Sullivan said. “I just don’t think we’re accustomed to fishing the techniques we need to be fishing. I know there’s a lot of people who aren’t having the success they’ve had in the past, and I think it’s because of water clarity. The fish have got to be there.”
Beck said he believes walleyes have definitely changed patterns due to clearer water, and it’s possible a cold-water fish like walleyes are concentrated into fewer areas of preferred habitat, especially during summer months.
Some devoted walleye anglers have changed their tactics by simply fishing border states such as the Dakotas where stocking has proven effective in some cases.
Beck said comparing lakes there to many around Alexandria is comparing apples to oranges. There is only so much carrying capacity in these waters, he says, pointing to the Alexandria Chain as an example of waters that often have to balance more than 40 species.
Lakes in neighboring states “don’t have the diversity of fish that our lakes support,” Beck said. “In most cases, they don’t support as many northern pike. They’re very simple systems.”
The Viking Sportsmen set out with their stocking program 10 years ago with the intent to match what the state was stocking on a lot of local lakes. The group has stocked fingerlings at a lower level the last two years, in large part because they could not get the fish after a couple of tough years for fish farmers.
If the Viking Sportsmen can get the fish, they are committed to continue working with lake associations to put as many walleye fingerlings into area lakes at a time when the DNR is cutting back.
“We still have money available and we’re still planning on continuing with the program,” Sullivan said. “If the growers find the fish, we’ll figure out a way to raise the money to get them in there.”
(Tom Cherveny of the Forum News Service contributed to this story)
A look at the local impact
(Success based on DNR netting surveys. The Glenwood Area DNR covers Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens and portions of Todd County)
Lakes that will discontinue state stocking of fingerlings: Indian, Vermont, Leven
Lakes that saw no impact from the accelerated stocking program and will lower fingerling stocking back to base recommended levels: Aaron, Agnes, Brophy, Cottonwood, Grove, Henry, Oscar, Scandinavian
Lakes that saw some success through the accelerated stocking program and will continue to be stocked with fingerlings at the current level: Darling, Geneva, Latoka, L’Homme Dieu, Lobster, Mill, Stowe, Pelican