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Walleye Article in Pioneer Press

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2009: Year of the walleye

Embracing one of its critics, the Department of Natural Resource is developing a new walleye management plan — and challenging some old assumptions

By Chris Niskanen

cniskanen@pioneerpress.com

Article Last Updated: 12/20/2008 09:20:23 PM CST

[PoorWordUsage] Sternberg of Deephaven, Mn. has been working with the Minnesota DNR to improve walleye stocking strategies, photographed on December 17, 2008. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi) RelatedMore outdoors

Progressive Holmes put wildlife firstWalleye stocking hits peak in 2008Books always sure to pleaseFor as much as Minnesotans love catching and eating walleye — each year anglers take home about 3.5 million walleyes weighing about 4 million pounds — we still don't know much about managing the walleye's biggest predator:

The angler.

In other words, managing walleyes — and anglers — is complex business in Minnesota, where the Department of Natural Resources has to balance the walleye population with anglers' desires to catch and eat more fish and a state fishing economy made up of thousands of resorts and fishing-related businesses dependent upon walleyes.

That is why 2009 should be called Minnesota's "Year of the Walleye."

In the coming year, the DNR will be talking to anglers a lot about walleyes and how catching and stocking them is managed.

And some old assumptions about walleye management are being challenged.

NEW IDEAS FOR WALLEYE MANAGEMENT

It starts Jan. 9 when the annual DNR Roundtable convenes in Brooklyn Park, where the agency will hold meetings on new ideas for stocking walleyes and simplifying the state's complex walleye regulations.

"In many cases, our walleye regulations are working, but at what cost?" asked Dave Schad, the DNR's director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife. "One cost is complexity of the regulations and we're hearing from folks they're having a hard time keeping track of them."

Moreover, there are worries slot limits might be overprotecting large walleyes on some lakes, causing them

to cannibalize or otherwise suppress the survival of young walleyes.

Next, starting in late January and early February, the DNR will send mail surveys to 3,000 anglers who fish walleye in Minnesota, asking them about their motivations, travel habits and experiences catching the state fish.

The survey sample pool will be split three ways: nonresidents, rural Minnesota anglers and anglers living in the Twin Cities.

Also this year, the DNR will begin revising its walleye-stocking guidelines for the first time since 1992. The review might result in more fish being stocked, but with less DNR involvement. Revenues from the new walleye stamp, which goes on sale in 2009, may be used to purchase additional walleyes from private hatcheries, DNR officials say.

The DNR wants to produce a new Walleye Management Plan by 2010, said Jason Moeckel, a DNR fisheries officials who is leading the effort to produce the plan.

"We may not call it a plan per se, but a document that can be updated regularly," Moeckel said.

LISTENING TO A CRITIC

All of this pleases [PoorWordUsage] Sternberg, the DNR's biggest critic when it comes to walleye management.

Sternberg, a former DNR employee, began probing the DNR's dropoff in walleye stocking in the late 1990s. His discovery that some lakes had dropped to a fraction of their previous stocking levels prompted the Legislature to fund an "accelerated" stocking program with an infusion of $1 million a year.

Sternberg has also been a thorn in the DNR's side over the stocking of Leech Lake. He has worked with local Leech Lake angler groups to convince the DNR that more walleye stocking was needed to rescue the lake's plunging walleye population. The DNR's stocking efforts have worked, and last summer Leech Lake had one of its best fishing seasons in years.

In a reversal, the DNR is embracing more of Sternberg's management suggestions.

"We're having a lot more communication and involvement with [PoorWordUsage]," said Ron Payer, chief of the DNR's fisheries program.

Said Moeckel: "Everybody here would agree that [PoorWordUsage] asks some good questions."

STOCKING MORE FINGERLINGS

One of Sternberg's biggest criticisms has been the DNR has not stocked enough walleye "fingerlings," or walleyes raised in ponds during the summer and stocked into lakes in the fall. Fingerlings are expensive to produce and stock, compared with stocking walleye "fry" right after they are hatched, but fingerlings tend to survive better to be caught by anglers.

The DNR's formula for fingerling stocking is weighted toward pounds, not necessarily numbers. For example if lake X was stocked with 200 pounds of fingerlings and the fingerlings weighed the equivalent five fish to a pound, the lake would get 1,000 walleyes.

Sternberg wants the DNR to raise the numbers of fingerlings stocked and rely less on the number of pounds stocked.

Moeckel explained that the DNR hasn't been able to ramp up its fingerlings numbers because the agency's rearing ponds aren't freezing out annually, leaving bigger walleyes that eat the smaller ones. That makes it difficult to raise lots of fingerlings.

"The lack of winterkill has been a big problem for us in getting our ponds to produce more fingerlings," he said.

Today, the DNR and Sternberg are working on a formula so lakes will be stocked with more fingerlings — ideally, about 20 to the pound — and the additional walleyes will come from private producers.

"We still don't agree on the numbers of fish that will be stocked," said Sternberg, who will be giving a presentation at the DNR Roundtable. "But they're admitting that things have to be done, and now we're working to get the tools to do it."

Moeckel said the DNR is facing budget cuts and is looking for more efficient ways to stock walleyes.

It costs the DNR $22 to $23 a pound to raise walleye fingerlings, but the state pays private producers about $14.50 a pound for walleyes. Higher staff salaries and fuel costs are among the reasons why the DNR can't raise fingerlings more cheaply than the private sector.

"Buying private fish can allows us to get rid of some of our big, gas-guzzling trucks," Moeckel said.

RETHINKING SLOT LIMITS

Most of Minnesota's major walleye lakes have slot limits — regulations that generally require anglers to keep small fish and one token trophy and throw back larger, breeding-sized fish. However, slot limits can vary greatly from lake to lake.

Not only have slot limits added complexity to the regulations, there is research showing protecting large numbers of breeding fish might be detrimental to young walleyes. A recent Lake Mille Lacs report suggest cannibalism contributed to a significant loss of the 2006 hatch of walleyes, which began as the largest year class ever recorded in Mille Lacs. The report concluded 18 percent of Lake Mille Lacs walleye diets in 2006 were small walleyes.

"Lower survival of young fish may be a recruitment response to the increased number of large fish since Treaty regulations began in 1997," the report states.

"My suggestion is that we put a moratorium on special walleye regulations," Sternberg said.

Payer said the DNR is interested in reviewing the effectiveness of slot limits.

"The bulk of our regulations came along in the 1990s," Payer said. "I don't think we will be throwing out slot limits. But when you're protecting a heavy biomass (large walleyes), you might reduce recruitment (of young fish.)."

It might come as a shock to some anglers that keeping more larger walleyes might be good for the future of fishing. Payer said the DNR is still looking at the "tipping point" where protecting large walleyes is a good thing.

"Anglers will still want to catch large walleyes," he said. "They don't want to go back to catching 12- and 13-inch fish."

Said Sternberg: "I think slots have a place. But we don't have to protect all the spawners, either. They produce a lot of eggs."

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I have to trust they know what they are doing. I was surprised at some of what I read, esp. regarding slots. A fisheries biologists I am not.

I do believe we (fishermen / sportsmen) are the walleyes biggest predator and welcome more education / management of what we do and how we do it. We can't expect to just keep pumping more and more walleyes into are lakes to keep up with demand. We need to focus on the other end, harvest, also, and abide with what [PoorWordUsage] Sternberg and the DNR suggest.

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Thanks for sharing the article. We all know actions speak louder than words. Let's see what happens.

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what worked in Leach Lake is definatly not a role model for lakes that dont fit the classification of Leach Lake

we definatly need to private-ise growing any fish stock to get it competative

some lakes will beneifit from fingerling while some will benefit from fry some from both

out here on glacial lakes area where Walleye simply are not able to produce we should simply eliminate some lakes from expense of stocking

I put a lot of faith in Mr. sternberg but can eliminate some credit after watching him get paid thousands of dollars to speak what people want to hear instead of whole truths[Green Lake Spicer Mn.] for example where he spoke a text with photos from Suppoesed Green Lake property Owners Association that are out to eliminate a natural species only to replace it with non reproductive Walleye'

I also watched him in A lake that he attempted to catch a fish 4 to 5 times larger than any of its species was ever recorded

he has the DNRs attention and definatly lots of others

OK the accelerated Walleye Program is a hit in my books

lets just read his studys along with those of many other lakes for differant areas and not put him on any payroll

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