Scott Rall: Part Two of what it takes to build a walleye

Scott RallDaily Globe outdoors columnist Last week I started part one of two articles that explore the world of walleye stocking in southwest Minnesota prairie lakes. If you missed it I would jump on the Daily Globe website and find it and read i...

Scott Rall
Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

Last week I started part one of two articles that explore the world of walleye stocking in southwest Minnesota prairie lakes. If you missed it I would jump on the Daily Globe website and find it and read it first. It sets the backdrop for the following information.
Walleyes are stocked in most southwest Minnesota lakes because the fish in these lakes cannot spawn successfully enough to carry the populations at high enough numbers to satisfy anglers. Without stocking, most of our lakes in southwest Minnesota would have walleye numbers too low to satisfy anglers.
Think of a lake with little to no natural reproduction like a giant pen at a stock yard. They start filling the stock yard pen with steers and do so until the pen is full. Then every day someone backs up a trailer and takes two steers. In some amount of time (it might be a long time) the pen will eventually go empty because there is no one bringing in more steers.
Lakes with no natural reproduction are exactly the same. They might do OK for a short time but with no new fish being added and the fish in the lake unable to successfully reproduce, the lake will eventually go empty. So goes the life of a prairie lake.
Southwest Minnesota in the past took whatever walleye stocking fry was available . The fry (recently hatched eggs are called fry) came from all over the state and came from different genetic strains of fish.
This was the case for many years and the results were certainly not bad. We were the melting pot of walleye fry strains and beggars certainly could not be choosey. Different strains of walleyes from different areas were never researched to see if one was better than the other. We just took what was available and made the best of it.
Ryan Doorenbos is the area fisheries manager located out of the Windom office.
Back in 2,000 the DNR started to ask the question as to why Lake Sarah walleyes were doing so well despite the fact that the lake had not been stocked since 1991. To begin to answer the question, the DNR went to Lake Sarah in Murray County and caught a few of these fish to collect scale samples and determine genetic origin. They seemed to be doing better than walleyes in other lakes, and this lake seemed to have a rate of natural reproduction that was far greater than other lakes in the area.
They took those fish and with a grant of $500 they sent some scales from these fish to a lab and had them analyzed. It was determined that these fish were of a somewhat special genetic strain of walleyes that had been seen in few other lakes in southern Minnesota.
They compared the genetics of these local fish with other fish from across the state and determined that the original source of these fish was from the Cannon River near Waterville.
Lake Sarah was now one of the only lakes known to man that has virtually 100 percent of the population from this one particular strain. The Cannon River watershed has many lakes and they have been stocked regularly over the past decades.
There is no guarantee anymore that any fish caught there now will still represent the original strain that exists in Lake Sarah.
Due to the reproductive strength of this walleye strain, Lake Sarah has not been stocked two out of every three years like the other lakes in the area. In fact, Lake Sarah has not been stocked since 1991 and it has sustained the population of walleyes there totally on its own. Additionally by not stocking Lake Sarah, unknowingly, Lake Sarah has preserved the Cannon River genetics.
Lake Sarah gets tons of fishing pressure and is considered by anyone who fishes for walleyes to be one of the very best in the state for big fish numbers.
State DNR Fisheries personnel are now catching and milking female walleyes from Lake Sarah to be fertilized in a tank, and when the eggs hatch into fry these fry will be used to stock other lakes in our area with the hopes of spreading this genetic strain to all of the lakes in southwest Minnesota. If this strain proves to perform better in other southern Minnesota lakes it could be used to bolster many walleye fisheries across southern Minnesota.
Northern Minnesota has its own specific strains of walleyes and they don’t want to dilute those original strains, so fish from southwest Minnesota will most likely never get stocking in a northern Minnesota lake.
This is what I was doing with these guys a few Saturdays back. They set nets and these nets catch the fish alive. The non-target fish are all released and only the walleyes are counted, and in some cases kept for a short period. The walleyes in each net are counted, the sex is determined, and if a female has not laid her eggs she will be taken to a central site and have her eggs stripped. Males will be caught as well to add their necessary inventory to this process. This spawning process only lasts for a few days and the boys were out every day and even Sunday to make the most of this short-lived opportunity.
The day I rode along we caught seven large females, but all but one had already laid her eggs and the last one was not ready yet. The day before they did great and the day after they had the biggest day yet in the three years that this project has been in existence.
They were able to strip and fertilize 17 quarts of eggs on the Sunday following my visit. Because the opportunity is so short they enlisted the help of the local rough fish seiner, David LeClaire, who volunteered his equipment and staff for free to help catch spawning females.
On the day I was there there were no ripe females in the net but it sure was nice to see Dave helping our fisheries people to do the best job they could.
Thank you to Dave and Doug LeClaire for helping. We need more folks like you.
This program is very exciting and what it might do for the prairie lakes of southwest Minnesota is not yet completely known. Lake Sarah has lots of rocky shore lines and good spawning habitat, and this is certainly part of the reason this lake does so well. Another reason very well might be that the strain of walleye in this lake is just better suited to the kinds of lakes we have here. They seem to grow faster, and have better natural reproduction and better survival rates than other strains that have been used in the past.
One way or the other, the next few years will be very exciting as the walleyes that are being stocked in the other lakes grow and age where they, too, can start to try to naturally reproduce. Could we ever get to point where the lakes in our area would have enough natural reproduction as to not need to be stocked at their current rates and yearly intervals if they needed stocking at all? I certainly don’t know the answer, but the possibilities are pretty exciting.
So now is the time for the story to come full circle. When Ryan Doorenbos, who was a fisheries specialist at the time and not the regional fisheries manager like he is today, went looking for that $500 grant, he called me. I was the president of the Southwest Minnesota Fishing Club at that time and I, along with the other board members of the club, gave him the $500 he needed.
If we had not done so back in 2000 there is no telling if this exciting work would have ever have come to fruition. In the world of natural resource management, people need to think out of the box. Ryan and the other natural resource professionals he works with did that, and I truly think that we could be on the eve of some big changes in the way walleye stocking takes place in our part of the state. To think that the Southwest Minnesota Fishing Club could in some way take some measure of credit for that is pretty darn satisfying.
One additional note. That was not the last time a conservation organization helped out our partners at the DNR. Recently the Cottonwood Game and Fish League. Fox Lake Conservation League, Round Lake Sportsman’s Club, SW Minnesota Fishing Club, Lake Benton Sportsman’s Club and the Tyler Rod and Gun Club all made donations to make possible the purchase of equipment needed at the Waterville hatchery to handle these research and stocking efforts.
Hunters and fishers have been, and always will be, the ones who stand up first with their time, money and effort to advance those game and fish management efforts that every American benefits from even if they themselves don’t fish or hunt.

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