By Jason Abraham
They come from miles around, schoolchildren and adults, all to see trophy-sized walleyes. They can't eat the fish. They can't mount them above their fireplaces. All they can do is watch. And yet, in a testament to how much Minnesotans love walleye, they gather in a dirt parking lot north of Brainerd. Surrounded by red pines, this simple turnaround offers a majestic view of the Pine River as it tumbles toward its confluence with Upper Whitefish Lake.
Here, DNR fisheries workers trap adult walleyes as they leave the 7,300-acre lake and head up the Pine to spawn. They pluck the fish from a net trap set in the current, then squeeze them to get the eggs or milt (sperm). Fertilized eggs are incubated at hatcheries to produce mosquito-sized walleye called fry. Fry are stocked either directly into lakes or into wetlands, where they grow over the summer into 4- to 8-inch walleye fingerlings before being stocked into lakes across the state.
The two-week egg-take begins when the Pine River reaches 42 degrees F, usually mid-April. Word spreads fast in surrounding communities, and the crowds begin gathering by the dozens shortly after. So many people visit the operation each day that the DNR crew designates one worker to act as a tour guide. At night, a guard deters anyone who might be tempted to pilfer a trapped trophy.
"It's quite a show. If walleye are coming to the trap, they're adult fish--at least 5 to 6 years old for females and 4 to 5 years old for males," says Tim Brastrup, DNR area fisheries manager in Brainerd. Larger fish lead the spawning run, and females weighing from 10 to 13 pounds are common in the first days of the egg-taking operation. Brastrup has seen fish as large as 16 pounds.
After the walleye are stripped of their eggs or milt, they are released back into the river.
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Crowds of folks fascinated by walleye gather at many of Minnesota's nine spring walleye-egg-taking operations, Brastrup says. "There's a mystique about walleye. A lot of people fish, and they don't see numbers of walleye this size," he says. "But they see the fish trap and know there are big walleye in the lake."
In a state where anglers' passion for this fish is matched only by the DNR's steadfast effort to promote healthy walleye populations, a glimpse of trophy walleye--fat with spawn and glistening in the early spring sun--inspires unmitigated fascination among anglers and fisheries workers alike.
The pursuit of this fish, cast in green and gold, can reach epic proportions in Minnesota, where walleye became an official state symbol in 1965. At least two towns--Garrison and Baudette--claim the title of Walleye Capital of the World.
In the 24 hours before the inland season opener (May 12 this year), more than 35,000 anglers (30 per minute) will purchase a fishing license. Each year, anglers harvest an average of 3.5 million walleye, compared to 3.2 million northern pike--and 65 million panfish.
But in a state that offers opportunities for game fish species ranging from salmon to cisco, why are anglers so fixated on walleye?
The walleye's handsome shape, subtle coloring, flaky fillets, and elusive behavior are probably part of the reason. There's also a practical side to fishing for walleye.
Walleye spawn just after ice-out and feed very actively throughout early spring--just when anglers are itching to get on the water after a long winter. Moreover, walleye reach eating size relatively quickly compared with other fish species. In some lakes, walleye reach keeper size--about 1 pound--in just three years.
Because of these qualities, walleye have long been a favorite of sport anglers and fisheries managers alike. Efforts to expand walleye fishing opportunities date back to the DNR's earliest history. The DNR first stocked walleye, 170 adults averaging 3 pounds each, in 1880. Three years later the first walleye eggs were taken from a spawning site on the St. Louis River at Fond du Lac. The first walleye fry, about one-third of an inch long, were stocked in 1885.
Today, more than 1,200 Minnesota lakes, from the boreal forests in the north to the prairies of the southwest, harbor fishable walleye populations, according to the DNR. On lakes with high fishing pressure but with little or no natural walleye reproduction, the DNR stocks walleye fingerlings. In 2006 the DNR stocked 167,579 pounds of fingerlings in 350 such lakes across the state. In addition, more than 261 million fry were stocked in 234 lakes. Overall more than 900 lakes are stocked on a rotating basis.
Most Minnesotans can find walleye fishing within an hour's drive of home. Of the 2.1 million anglers who fish Minnesota each year, about 25 percent target walleye when they fish, according to DNR creel surveys. "It's a fish that everyone seems to be familiar with and talk about," says Brastrup. "I don't think there's anyone who doesn't know that Minnesota's state fish is the walleye."
Perhaps the most important element in maintaining Minnesota's walleye fishing is attracting more young people to the sport, says Ron Payer, DNR Fisheries chief. According to a recent DNR study, about 1.2 million Minnesotans buy annual Minnesota angling licenses. Yet the percentage of people between the ages of 16 and 44 who buy licenses declined between 2000 and 2005.
"If angler numbers dwindle in the future, we could lose our connections to the resource," Payer says. He worries that a future with fewer anglers could mean less support for laws and land-use policies that protect water quality, aquatic plants, natural shorelines, and watersheds.
Since 1990 the DNR has been promoting angling among young people through MinnAqua, a program that teaches fishing and stewardship as well as ecology. Each year MinnAqua staff hold fishing clinics across the state for youth groups such as 4-H and scouts, seniors, and immigrants. The DNR is also drafting an angling recruitment plan, which will include offering a biology-based fishing curriculum to schools and increasing urban fishing opportunities through the Fishing in the Neighborhood program.
For information on MinnAqua, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/minnaqua.
It's not just Minnesotans who relish the chance to pursue walleye. Although native to the greater Midwest and much of Canada, walleye have been introduced into waters across the United States, as far east as New England and as far south as Texas.
In Wisconsin, walleye have a loyal following, although the opener doesn't generate as much excitement as in Minnesota, according to Steve Avelallemant, a regional fisheries manager in northeastern Wisconsin.
"The walleye opener is considerably quieter in Wisconsin. You don't see the world gearing up for it like you might in Minnesota," Avelallemant says. "It could be that anglers are focused on other fish species that time of year." Bass and muskie fishing seasons, which open about the same time as walleye in much of Wisconsin, have gained followings that rival walleye angling in that state.
Even Montana, best known for mountain streams and wader-clad trout anglers, has a dedicated contingent of walleye fans, particularly in the eastern part of the state, where reservoirs hold large populations of walleye. Mark Henckel, outdoor editor of the Billings Gazette, says walleyes were introduced in Montana about 20 years ago and have been gaining popularity ever since.
"There's a trout faction and a walleye faction of anglers in this state, and what you fish depends on where you live," Henckel says. "People in the west fish trout, and in the east there's more walleye fishing. People who live in the middle of the state might fish both walleye and trout."
Leroy Chiovitte knows just how much Minnesotans revere walleye. The low-key angler from Hermantown caught Minnesota's state record walleye in 1979. He hooked the 17-pound, 8-ounce fish near the mouth of the Seagull River at Lake Saganaga.
"For weeks after, there were a lot of calls from the media wanting to hear the story," Chiovitte remembers. "I was in the Duluth paper, the Twin Cities newspapers, Winona, North Dakota. There was even a photo of me and the fish in Outdoor Life."
He also heard from many anglers around the state. "Mostly they wanted me to take them fishing," he says. "But fishing with me doesn't mean you're going to catch a record. I was fortunate. The chances of catching another fish like that are pretty slim."
Shortly after catching the fish Chiovitte was invited to display his record fish at a taxidermy convention in Canada. On his way there, he stopped to do some sales business at the Boise Cascade paper mill in International Falls. "The guys found out I had the mounted fish in my car, and they practically had to shut down the plant because everyone left to go see it."
Chiovitte says people frequently recognize his name, and he still occasionally appears on television and radio around the opener of the walleye season. Now retired from his sales job, he continues to fish walleye regularly but has always preferred to pursue trout and pick blueberries. "I've always enjoyed getting out and walking more than sitting in a boat," he says. "But I've had a lot of fun with the record, and it's okay if someone breaks it now."
"But I don't think anyone's going to beat it," he adds.
For many Minnesotans, the love of all things walleye begins at an early age, passed down through generations during family fishing trips and shore lunches on cobblestone beaches. Ideally, anglers also pass along their conservation ethic. Maintaining the resources that make these traditions possible is the responsibility of all anglers, says Ron Payer, DNR Fisheries chief.
"It starts with water quality and habitat," Payer says. "We have huge natural walleye factories in Minnesota like Leech Lake, Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs, and Lake of the Woods." By preserving and planting native shoreline vegetation, protecting adjacent watersheds, and maintaining aquatic plants, people can ensure these lakes offer excellent fishing opportunities for generations to come, he says. Where habitat and natural spawning areas exist, walleye typically thrive, negating the need for stocking. However, there are lakes in which stocking is useful, Payer says. Stocking walleye fry is usually done to fix problems created by habitat loss or the input of excessive nutrients.
A large walleye fry stocking rehabilitation effort had great results on Red Lake, where the walleye population was depleted by overharvest in the 1970s. Red Lake was closed to walleye fishing in 1999. Over the next few years, the lake was stocked three times by the DNR and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa with more than 73 million walleye fry to create a self-sustaining population. The lake was reopened for walleye angling in 2006.
The DNR also stocks fingerlings in lakes where walleye habitat is unoccupied because of poor natural spawning areas (such as excessive silt covering the spawning gravel). Fingerlings or fry might also be stocked when natural walleye reproduction fails in several consecutive years
But stocking is only one part of maintaining the state's walleye fisheries. A key element to preserving larger fish, Payer says, is limiting the harvest of medium and large walleyes on certain lakes. To do that, the DNR has set special fishing regulations on 58 of Minnesota's 1,200 walleye lakes. These regulations require anglers to release walleye that would be legal under statewide fishing regulations.
"Anglers today are well versed in the habits and habitat of walleye. They have more technology, such as Global Positioning Systems and depth finders at their disposal," Payer says. "Walleye are a resilient fish, but in some cases we need to manage the harvest through special regulations or promoting voluntary release of some fish."
Whatever the future may hold, one thing is certain: When warm spring winds blow the walleye's siren call, Minnesota anglers will answer. They'll gather at egg-taking operations to drool over trophy walleye. They'll rig the boat and make plans with their friends. And on opening day, they'll crowd boat accesses to pursue their favorite fish.
Their reasons will vary. For some walleye fishing is a social occasion for gathering at a cabin with friends and relatives. Others pursue walleye from sunrise to sunset searching for a trophy--or a mouth-watering lunch of fillets and fried potatoes on a sandy beach.
Regardless, the magnificent walleye--with its pearlescent stare, glistening scales, and occasional maddening stubbornness--will always be the centerpiece of Minnesota's fishing traditions. Anglers wouldn't have it any other way.
Jason Abraham is a staff writer for the divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Ecological Resources. He wonders if fish-proud towns around the world will drop their claims as "Walleye Capital of the World" if Baudette is successful in trademarking the phrase.