Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Governor Tommy G.Thompson Fish Hatchery © Michael Kienitz

Fish hatchery upgrades and the ability to produce larger fish that survive better are a key part of the initiative. Wisconsin Walleye Initiative funding let the Governor Tommy G. Thompson Fish Hatchery (pictured here) put 20 ponds into production in 2013 raising larger walleye for stocking, compared to four to six ponds in a normal year.
© Michael Kienitz

April 2014

Your fish wish answered

Wisconsin Walleye Initiative seeks to enhance a Wisconsin way of life by stocking larger walleye.

Lisa Gaumnitz

For hundreds of years, the Native Americans living in what is now Wisconsin speared walleye to feed their families and use in feasts and community gatherings.

Bing Crosby came to Wisconsin and sang for his supper, literally, taking guide Louis St. Germaineís advice and singing one stanza of "Auld Lang Syne" to properly set the hook on a walleye.

And Kurt Justice, now a bait shop owner and fishing guide in Minocqua, would speed north after work on Fridays 20–some years ago, sleep in his car, and wake up first thing to fish hard for walleye until returning Sunday night to his Illinois home.

Walleye have long been part of the fabric of life for the people who have lived in Wisconsin and a lure bringing visitors to the shores of its lakes and rivers. Musky may be the stateís official symbol, but angler surveys show that walleye own our hearts.

Now, a $13–million, two–year funding package developed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Department of Natural Resources, and unanimously approved in June 2013 by legislators, aims to put more walleye on peopleís plates and more money in local businesses' cash registers.

The plan, called the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative, is stocking more larger walleye in waters where walleye populations have decreased in recent years. A growing body of research looking at declines in walleye populations in the Upper Midwest is finding a bunch of contributing factors, but points to drought and long–term environmental changes unfavorable to walleye as the main culprits. The belief is that stocking larger walleye, and more of them, will increase their chance of surviving and one day successfully reproducing in the wild before winding up on the end of a line.

"The more fish, the better for everyone," says Justice, now entering his twenty–third year as a guide in the area. "I was excited to see we got some attention. People want to enjoy some fish they can eat. A good fishing trip is important not just for the bait shops and the guides, but for the resorts, the motels, the restaurants and the gas stations. All benefit from these anglers coming up."

"The initiative," says Cheryl Treland, co–owner of Treeland Resorts in Hayward and a dynamo who has presided over a long list of local tourism organizations, "was a shock. It was an amazement. It just gave us a level of confidence the Department of Natural Resources really does care.

"We've been behind it 1,000 percent to promote it and get information out. The more people are in the know, the better," she says, describing a full–court press to pass on, or produce their own materials, to let local citizens and decision makers know about the initiative.

The heart of the plan is to significantly increase stocking of the larger walleye that research shows can survive better, often at rates up to 30 times that of their smaller brethren, says Mike Staggs, retiring Wisconsinís fisheries director.

To do that, the $13–million package includes more operating money for DNR hatcheries to raise more of the larger fish, and invests in upgrading infrastructure at state fish hatcheries so they can increase their production capacity for the larger walleye. The initiative also delivers a one–time $2–million competitive grant program aimed at helping tribal, municipal and private fish hatcheries increase their capacity to produce more fish, and provides money for the Department of Natural Resources to contract with these hatcheries to stock the larger walleye.

When allís said and done after two years, the state expects to stock up to eight times as many larger fish as otherwise, reaching hundreds of lakes, and to finish much needed hatchery upgrades identified in a 2011 comprehensive study of the hatchery system.

"Northern Wisconsin is an important beneficiary of this, but there are other parts of the state that will absolutely benefit from this," Staggs says. "Southern lakes, which arenít known to have a lot of natural reproduction, will get more of the fish they need to sustain good walleye fishing. I think people are going to notice that thereís better walleye fishing if weíre able to stock over several years."

As soon as the ink dried on the state budget June 30, 2013, DNR hatcheries, biologists and propagation staff mobilized to ramp up production of the larger walleyes. Rather than shipping fish out of the hatcheries after a few months as what are known as "small fingerlings," fish 1.5 to 2 inches long, the hatcheries now had the operating funds to keep the fish at the hatchery longer.

Growing fish to the larger size — 6 to 8 inches — a size often referred to as "extended growth," "EG" or "large fingerlings," is significantly more expensive because the food is more expensive. After hatching, the younger walleye live in ponds that are fertilized and feed on the plankton and other organisms that grow in the pond.

Walleye destined for EG status are fed minnows purchased from private fish farmers and are kept at lower densities in more ponds, which makes them more labor intensive.

By the time the last state stocking truck delivered its load of walleye, DNR hatcheries had produced a record 416,506 extended growth walleye for stocking. The department bought another 23,975 from private fish farmers using initiative funds.

Altogether, 100 lakes were stocked, up from 35 in a typical year. Most of the fish were stocked in northern Wisconsin because the department filled the stocking requests submitted by biologists when they thought the state was limited in how many larger fish it could produce. The Department of Natural Resources will use feedback from public meetings and an online survey on the kinds of factors people want the department to use in 2014 and 2015 in helping to decide which waters should get stocked across the state.

"The increased funding provided by the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative allows us to significantly increase stocking of the larger extended growth walleye but we think the demand will exceed the supply," says Steve Avelallemant, longtime DNR fisheries supervisor in northern Wisconsin and one of the leaders of the initiative effort. "We need to prioritize to make the most effective and efficient use of the fish able to be produced under the initiative."

The stocking guidelines the department will use call for setting up a priority system for stocking waters with public access. The qualifying candidate waters would be divided into four categories based on fisheries management priorities, Avelallemant says.

Lakes will be stocked at different rates and every other year to help the department hone in on the stocking rate and kinds of lakes that produce the best survival.

"If stocking five walleye per acre is more effective than stocking 10 or 15 per acre, weíll reduce that rate in subsequent years and be able to stock more lakes," Avelallemant says.

Likewise, the reverse is true. Avelallemant and other managers say the stocking is needed in some lakes to boost natural reproduction, particularly as a prolonged drought in northern Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest grinds on and as climate trends result in less runoff, clearer water and more plants.

"Walleye lay a boatload of eggs, but even in the best of situations, the number of young fish hatched that survive to their first year fluctuates widely," Avelallemant says. "They are strong every three to four years. The problem is, they havenít had a strong year class for up to a decade in some lakes."

Greg Gauger, walleye pond foreman at Governor Tommy G. Thompson Fish Hatcheryy in Spooner. © DNR File
Greg Gauger, walleye pond foreman at Governor Tommy G. Thompson Fish Hatchery in Spooner, collects large fingerling walleye to be stocked into state waters. See which waters get stocked and learn more about the initiative at dnr.wi.gov, search "Walleye."
© DNR File

Newly hatched walleye like a lot of water and stable spring conditions — neither of which Wisconsin has had for a long time. Just in the last two years weíve had some of the earliest and the latest ice outs on record, he says.

"The walleye initiative helps us keep enough walleye in there so when all the planets align, they are there to do their thing," he says. Justice knows that the fish stocked under the initiative will take several years to grow.

"I donít expect the initiative to fill every hole," he says. "But it can take the pressure off the lakes that have good reproduction now. I look at this as a seed to get things started. Hopefully in a couple of years people see fishing is good and realize it didnít happen by itself and will work to make sure it keeps going."

In addition to providing the operating funds necessary to produce a large number of extended growth walleye, Justice wants more fish biologists and conservation wardens to protect the investment in stocked fish — and is willing to back a fee increase or walleye stamp to do it.

In the Hayward area, Treland says a partnership of the Lake Chippewa Flowage Resort Association, Chippewa Flowage Property Owners Association, Walleyes for Northwest Wisconsin, and the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Conservation Department have been buying extended growth walleyes for several years now to stock into the flowage. She is excited for the additional stocking and the chance to build on some of the partnerships strengthened through the initiative.

Already, their local partnership group has been meeting with the local DNR biologist, Max Wolter, and other stakeholders to brainstorm actions they can take to help better promote what they have now, to meet the changed vacation market, and to capitalize on the influx of anglers who no longer go to Canada because of tighter entrance requirements into the country and more restrictive bag limits.

The bulk of vacationers to most northern Wisconsin resorts are families who have been coming for generations, says Treland. They have changed their habits and arenít necessarily looking for walleye fishing 24/7, but want it to be part of the mix.

"When I was 15 everyone was up at the crack of dawn to go fishing and came in around 10:30 to 11 a.m. and by 5:30, 6 p.m., they were out on the water again until dark," Treland says. "Now we have them bringing as many golf clubs as fishing rods. Itís one more of those things you can do from birdwatching, to gambling, to driving and looking at the elk."

Treland wants to see the funding continue beyond two years and says, "you either have to build it into the rate or set up a walleye stamp. Itís going to have to be an ongoing thing until you can prove we have natural reproduction going," she says.

Staggs is cheered by the support for the initiative.

"We've got the opportunity to try something on a large scale in the face of changing environmental conditions," he says. "We think that over the next few years the tribes and resorts, guides, bait dealers, marinas and all of the other local businesses that depend on good fishing will benefit and Wisconsin becomes the destination for walleye fishing in the Midwest."

Lisa Gaumnitz is a public affairs manager in the DNR's Office of Communication and reports on fisheries management.