The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) joined other midwestern states when it announced April 14 that it was canceling its 2020 egg take operations for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and steelhead, citing an inability to adhere to social distancing protocols for a process that typically requires six to eight people working in close proximity.
The news was a blow to local anglers who know that Lake Minnetonka doesn’t have walleye unless it’s purposely stocked with it.
“It can be awesome fishing out here, and that only happens if we stock more fish, and that’s why it’s so tough that the DNR’s taking a year off,” said Johnny Range, founder and president of the Westonka Walleye Program (WWP).
Lake Minnetonka receives an average of 5,355 pounds of walleye from the DNR every other year, according to the department’s lake stocking reports from the past 10 years.
About two-thirds of the DNR’s biennial walleye contribution is raised by the department itself with the other third purchased from private fish hatcheries, said Daryl Ellison, reporter for the DNR’s west metro fisheries. It’s a situation that this year leaves 33 percent of the suppliers responsible for 100 percent of the stocking.
Anglers after our state fish may not need to fret too much, though—Ellison said the DNR would strive to make up for the shortage, even it means a thinner spread than usual, saying the DNR is looking to prioritize stocking for next year, “including lakes not stocked in 2020 as well as those planned for 2021.”
Ellison also said he expected Lake Minnetonka to be higher on the priority list if there aren’t enough walleye fingerlings to go around.
“Whether it gets stocked will depend on how many fingerlings the DNR is able to produce itself and purchase from the private sector in 2021,” he said, noting that Lake Minnetonka has regularly been stocked with fish purchased by private groups like the WWP and also that stocking is contingent on the money raised by sales of the walleye stamp.
The DNR also predicts that the mild winter this past year could mean “a good number” of walleyes left over from last year’s harvest are still swimming in natural rearing ponds, though Brad Parsons, fisheries section manager for the DNR, was as yet unsure how many they will get or whether Lake Minnetonka would get any of the carryover fish.
WWP’s Range said he’d be lucky to get even $20,000 worth of fish this year for the program—a far cry from last year’s $78,000 worth—but that he plans to buy up as many of the carryover fish as he can and that certain of the private hatcheries have pledged at least some walleye to the program already.
“If the DNR produces zero and the private fish market can’t keep up with the demand, I know the Walleye Program will have fish for sure,” he said.
WALLEYE IN LAKE MINNETONKA: “WE’VE GOT TO STOCK THEM
”“Everybody loves walleye, and we’ve got a situation where they’re not
reproduced in our lake,” said Range.
Only about 200 Minnesota lakes, most of these in the state’s northern third, have natural walleye reproduction, Range estimated. In other words, “If we want walleyes in Lake Minnetonka, we’ve got to stock them.”
It’s the same refrain that spawned the WWP back in 2012. The privately-funded non-profit’s sole purpose is to buy up walleyes for stocking Lake Minnetonka each year.
Last year, the WWP dropped nearly 6,000 pounds of walleye in the lake; many of the drop points were through the swath of green, plankton-rich waters between Maxwell and Halsted bays.
Walleye need gravel or rock crevices in which to spawn their eggs, as well as a reliable current to aerate the water and bring in some oxygen, said Range. The baby walleye, called fry, also need to be able to swim away after hatching.
Decades of shoreline development and farm run-off around Lake Minnetonka have made conditions far from amenable to spawning walleyes. “The eggs just sink into the mud,” said Range, pointing to areas like Painters Creek and Six Mile Creek as especially bad for walleye due to the amount of silt and sediment there.
But stocking the lake isn’t cheap. The DNR’s Ellison estimated an average cost to the DNR of $100,000 to stock just Lake Minnetonka with walleye every even-numbered year, which comes to just over $18.50 per pound.
The price per fish can also vary and can be upward of $2 per fish for the larger yearlings, the 6-12-inch walleye that have a better chance of making it to the next year’s fishing opener as the fisherman’s prized 16-20-inch adults.
Unlike the DNR, which primarily stocks the smaller fingerlings, the WWP aims to drop more big fish because, more than the quantity of fish in the lake, size matters, said Range, and because of that the impact of cancelling the egg take this year may not be felt for some time.
“There will come a year, two or three years down the road, where there won’t be as many 16- to 20-inch fish. There will be a lot of 12s and smallers and there will be a lot of 20s and biggers because we’re missing a year class.”
The DNR has taken a more optimistic view of the situation.
“Fish populations naturally are made up of fish hatched in different years, so a missing or weak year class is not uncommon,” said Parsons. “In fact, in lakes with natural reproduction, a strong year class often follows a weak year class, so not stocking for one year might actually benefit the following year’s stocked fry.”