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The 'Eyes Are the Prize

The 'Eyes Are the Prize

Keeping the walleye population in balance is the responsibility of DNR fisheries offices around the state. Needless to say, they have a broad perspective on the management of our state fish. (March 2008).

Photo by Ron Hustvedt.

Walleye fishing was pretty darn good last year, a trend that should continue throughout 2008, DNR fisheries managers say. That's great news for Minnesota's walleye anglers who live and die by DNR management efforts. Some anglers are quite content with the walleye population, while others never seem to be satisfied.

The job of keeping the walleye population in balance is the responsibility of the hundreds of folks in DNR fisheries offices around the state. Two of the men heading that section of the DNR are Ron Payer, fisheries chief, and Roy Johannes, fisheries program consultant. Both are longtime employees whose careers span nearly three decades. Needless to say, they have a broad perspective on the management of our state fish.

Minnesota remains the destination of choice for walleye anglers around the country. This includes everyone from tourists coming for dinner or tournament anglers making a stop on one of Minnesota's big lakes or rivers chock-full of walleyes. All those nonresidents come here for an opportunity that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country in such a wide variety of ways. Oh sure, there are plenty of walleyes in several other states and some other places where the average size is larger, but no other state has such a broad range of walleye fishing experiences as Minnesota.

With lakes and rivers dotting the woods and prairies, walleyes may be caught down deep, in weeds and all locations in between -- even in the middle of the lake. Check the address book of your favorite national walleye tournament trail and you'll see more addresses in Minnesota than any other state. Heck, the headquarters for most of those national walleye tournament trails have a postal code of "MN."

Things aren't all duckies and bunnies, however, for Minnesota's walleyes. There are plenty of challenges and even more unknowns that may greatly affect fisheries in the near future and well beyond. Johannes and Payer recently took some time from their jobs dealing with those challenges and the routines of managing our state fish to chat with Minnesota Sportsman.

"Walleyes are a resilient species and have maintained overall decent numbers over the years. I think the walleye fishery is in good shape with good numbers and good size structure on most waters," Payer said.

One factor that makes managing our state's walleye population so challenging is a large number of very good anglers.

"Our anglers are skillful and have good equipment along with access to lots of information, such as the Internet and other sources of information. This puts a lot of pressure on the fishery, but the walleyes have hung in there pretty well," he added.

Stocking Programs
A primary responsibility of the DNR is maintenance of fishing opportunities for anglers. In some lakes, natural reproduction is very effective for maintaining a healthy walleye population. In fact, some walleye lakes with excellent natural reproduction don't benefit from stocking. There are many other lakes, however, where walleye stocking is an excellent tool for the purpose of creating fishing opportunities.

"Stocking is a tool that when used properly and in the proper amount can provide good returns for anglers," Johannes said.

In some cases, stocking may be ineffective when fish aren't stocked appropriately. This is even true on lakes where the entire walleye population comes as a result of stocking.

Too many fish stocked in a lake creates an imbalance with other predators, including pike and bass.

The DNR's goal for the last few years has been 160,000 pounds of walleyes -- about 250 million fry -- stocked every spring. That goal was nearly achieved in 2005, exceeded in 2006 and on target for 2007.

Of the nearly 1,700 walleye lakes in Minnesota, about 900 are on a stocking program for either fry or fingerlings. Some lakes are stocked every year, some every other year, while still others are stocked every third year.

Johannes collects information about lakes where stocking is proposed and plans the stocking to insure quotas are met and the proper number of eggs is taken each spring.

He works closely with regional fisheries managers some of whom are quite bullish about stocking programs in their areas.

"My job is to balance the supply with the demand at the clearing house and make sure the right numbers get out to the right areas of the state."

Walleye rearing takes place in 350 ponds throughout the prairie pothole region of west-central Minnesota starting in Becker County near Detroit Lakes and moving along the corridor paralleling Interstate 94.

The majority of the walleyes in those ponds come from DNR hatcheries, although 25 percent of the overall amount came from private hatcheries last year. In 2000, the DNR expanded the stocking program based on a recommendation from the Minnesota Legislature that included a mandate to consider using privately hatched fish when possible. The program has been successful and, as a result, more and more fish come from private hatcheries each year.

In some cases, the DNR stocks lakes with walleye fry. Stocking fry is a more economical program because it doesn't cost very much to put a large number of walleyes into a lake. Their size, however, makes them susceptible to predation from a variety of species, including perch and bluegills.

Fingerlings ranging in size from 4 to 8 inches are another method of stocking. Put into a lake in the fall after growing in ponds throughout the summer, these walleyes have a better chance of survival but aren't stocked in the same numbers. Stocking fingerlings is more expensive per fish because they must be cared for and maintained throughout the summer, not to mention that fewer can be deposited in a lake at one time.

Determination of the best method of stocking is left up to Johannes and the area fisheries manager. It often takes a long time to determine what works best and even that can be much science and a little bit of luck.

"We continually evaluate our stocking programs, and in some lakes, we've increased the amount stocked or changed the variety, and in other lakes, we've made reductions. We've done a number of

studies for insight on how things work best," he said.

Stocking Case Studies
A 100- to 300-acre bass and panfish lake is typically stocked every three years, enough to create an opportunity for anglers to catch walleyes.

"You'll never have a dominant walleye population in a lake like that, but you can create the opportunity," Johannes said.

A 3,000- to 5,000-acre lake may require stocking every other year to ensure good year-classes.

Why not stock every year?

Johannes said studies have found that lakes in that size range don't respond as well when fish are stocked annually.

"Sometimes it's difficult to create a population where you have walleyes year after year and they can suppress year-classes, which always concerns us," he said.

Fisheries biology may be a science, but managing Minnesota's walleye fishery is not a perfect science for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason, some argue, is that the fish are managed for the human population. Some anglers want to keep everything, some want to keep only small ones, while others want to keep a trophy or two. Putting enough fish into a lake is only part of the deal.

"As far as our budget goes, we've been fortunate that the legislature has provided money for stocking programs now and into the future," Johannes said.

But decreasing fishing license sales may be a problem in the future because the revenues generated by licenses help fund stocking programs. The DNR is encouraging more people to become involved in angling and Johannes encouraged all Minnesota anglers to get out and introduce new people to fishing.

"Things are a lot different today than ever before and there's a lot of competition for people's time," he said.

Slot Limits
Time was, a walleye smaller than 17 inches was thrown back to grow bigger, and ones longer than 28 inches were put on the wall as a trophy. Today, thanks to a more informed public, most of those trophies are being released, while many of the smaller ones are taken for the frying pan.

Protecting those in-between fish is a big challenge that the DNR is still trying to figure out. When medium-sized fish are completely protected, more strain is placed on smaller fish and the population is disrupted. Many anglers release nearly every fish they catch, while others keep a limit every opportunity they get. Thus, the need for size regulations and slot limits.

VHS is spread when contaminated water or fish are transported from one lake to another. This affects a great deal of the fishing world from the transportation of minnows for bait and fry or fingerlings for stocking programs.

"We're very concerned about VHS in the Great Lakes, as well as in Michigan and Wisconsin," Johannes said. "We don't know how it will impact our stocking programs, but we are planning for that and how to deal with it when it comes."

The DNR is conducting surveillance monitoring on stocking and rearing ponds to make sure they are VHS free.

The Job
Payer said the most enjoyable part of his job is talking with people around the state who enjoy fishing.

"I've found them to be knowledgeable and most folks are fun to talk with, but it's always good to talk fishing," he said.

A resident of the northeastern metro, Payer does plenty of fishing on Forest Lake and other lakes in the Chisago area mostly because they are close to home. When he has a chance to fish elsewhere, he does because he likes to move around and experience all the fishing opportunities around the state.

"I like walleye fishing, but I also like going after catfish and bass," he said. "I try to cover waters throughout the state and talk with people wherever I go."

Speaking with those directly affected by his job is an interesting phenomenon and he said the state's anglers are the eyes and ears of the DNR.

"People sometimes pick things up before we do, especially the ones who fish a water every year for 40 years," he said. "They hear things and see things and I really enjoy their perspectives."

Their careers have spanned nearly three decades and Johannes and Payer are nearing retirement. They aren'talone because in the next five to eight years, many so-called baby boomers will be leaving the DNR as well.

Changing faces at leadership levels may also result in changing perspectives on management, but Payer said he's very confident about the future of the walleye management program.

"I'm impressed with the young people coming in. The vacancies we've recently filled have gone to some real top-shelf people," Payer said. "It's a great time to get into the field of fisheries and natural resources management because there are so many career opportunities in the near future."

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