Reporting Bill Hudson
PINE RIVER, Minn. (WCCO) – There’s a spot where the Pine River meets Upper Whitefish Lake, north of Brainerd, where walleyes run fat and healthy. This time of year their bellies are heavy with eggs.
Each spring, as the lake ice is going out, walleyes swim upriver where their natural instinct is to spawn.
But when the bronze bellied fish concentrate in such numbers, so do the crowds. Anglers of all types are eager to see so many, many walleyes, so close. For many of them it reaffirms the fact that the large walleyes that evade their hooks are still lurking in these waters.
“It’s always fun to see big fish, no matter who you are,” said Mark Bacigalupi, the DNR’s area fisheries supervisor.
Bacigalupi oversees one of the state’s most important walleye egg collection stations. That’s where the DNR collects the walleye eggs and takes them to state hatcheries to be incubated.
“Our quota this year is about 90 million eggs. That’s 718 quarts,” said Bacigalupi.
Walleyes are captured in large nets as they swim upstream. From there, the fish are placed into dockside corrals where they can be easily netted and transferred into tanks. One for the egg-carrying females and another, the fertilizing males.
Soon, the female walleyes are gently squeezed to release their eggs into plastic mixing bowls. Within a few seconds, the milt or sperm from several males is carefully added to the bowl and stirred.
A clay slurry is added to the fertilized eggs to prevent them from sticking together, assuring better incubation.
Kevin Mott is a DNR fish specialist who said they will get better fertilization here than the fish can do naturally when laying their eggs on the river bottom.
“Almost by 10 to 20-fold,” Mott said.
Before heading to the Brainerd hatchery, the eggs are gently washed to remove the excess clay. It’s a bit like panning for gold. And to the state’s fishery, it’s one commodity that is nearly that valuable.
“This way we get about 90 to 98 percent fertilization,” said Bacigalupi.
Once the eggs arrive at the hatchery, they are placed into glass jars to begin the incubation process.
“We put about two-and-a-half quarts of eggs in there,” Bacagalupi said.
For 21 days, constantly flowing water keeps the eggs churning, simulating the river’s natural current. Once hatched, they’ll swim through a system of tubes and into a large holding tank.
When asked how large the walleye fry will be at that point, Bacigalupi said, ”We like to say mosquito size, because everyone in Minnesota can relate.”
Soon, millions of fry and fingerlings from the hatchery will supplement hundreds of Minnesota lakes – including five million of the fry headed back into the Whitefish chain.
Ed Egan sits on the Whitefish Area Property Owner’s Association, which works closely with the DNR to develop a management plan for the fishery.
“And they end up putting back into the lakes in Whitefish I believe more fry than would naturally make it,” Egan said.
It’s a simple secret to getting more walleye in our waters and just maybe, more fish on your line.
“And they certainly taste good in the frying pan,” Bacigalupi said.