Putting all their walleye eggs — nearly 90 million — in one basket
PINE RIVER — The water temperature here, where the Pine River meets the Whitefish Chain, was a chilly 47.7 degrees Monday morning. But that didn’t deter one woman. She pulled off her shoes and socks, rolled up her pant legs and waded through the cold water, ankle-high in spots on the swamped DNR dock.
Anything to get a look at the walleyes.
And there are lots of them — big ones, too — at the DNR walleye egg-stripping station just off Whitefish’s Delta Bay. And it’s that time of year.
Actually, with the long winter and late ice-out, the annual egg-stripping effort is about two weeks behind the norm. But that doesn’t appear to be a problem.
Excellent conditions Monday allowed the DNR fisheries crew from Brainerd to make up ground, and they anticipated completing the job in about the same number of days as usual — possibly by the end of this week. And while the crowd was small by the Pine River station’s standards, and most of the 15 onlookers that had gathered by 10 a.m. Monday were relegated to the river bank because of the high waters, no one was complaining. It was a sunny, summer-like morning, the harsh winter was a memory and the walleye were plentiful.
“Let’s get some eggs,” came a shout from the DNR cabin on the river bank overlooking the station. With that, the five Brainerd DNR fisheries types went to work on what they hoped would be the most productive day in the week-plus since they started the 2011 egg-stripping project.
Through Sunday, they had 420 quarts of walleye eggs, more than halfway to their goal of 718 quarts, DNR fisheries specialist David Lockwood said while he cleaned the egg/milt mixture in waist-high water near shore, looking like a miner panning for gold. He said there are approximately 125,000 eggs per quart, meaning the Pine River station will gather nearly 90 million eggs for the area’s walleye-stocking cause.
Seeing the process, too, is worth the trip.
At the Pine River site, a long dock stretches past two fish holding areas/nets and a live net and then to the egg-stripping platform itself. The fisheries specialists sort through the live net, throwing back all species but walleyes, and stripping all ripe female walleyes of their eggs before releasing them into another net where they’ll be tagged then released back into the river.
Females who aren’t yet ready to give eggs are placed in a holding net until ready, with males in the other holding net. Then, ripe females are placed in a large trough on one side of the stripping station, with males in a trough on the other side. Eggs and milt are taken from each, combined, then prepped before being sent to a holding facility in Brainerd. After about three weeks, they hatch, and immediately after the fry are stocked in lakes throughout the area.
All fish moving from the lake to the river to spawn are funneled to the live net and ultimately end up here. And the females, fat with eggs, can get enormous.
And for the spectators, that’s the draw.
“We had one (female walleye) 32 inches last week,” Lockwood said. “The biggest male in the last six years was 28 inches and the biggest female (in that time) was a little over 32 inches.”
Fisheries specialist Carl Mills said most of the females are in the 24- to 26-inch range — probably six to eight pounds considering they’re full of eggs. Fisheries specialist Kevin Mott added that maybe 1,000 walleyes will come through the Pine River station.
That makes the station a must-see for fishing and walleye lovers. And while these DNR fisheries workers probably handle more than 100 big walleyes a day and, understandably, have grown somewhat numb to the experience, most of them are fishermen, too. And what Minnesota angler isn’t mesmerized by a big walleye?
“We see them when they’re plump and full of eggs. It’s not as fun when they’re like this (being stripped for their eggs) as opposed to on my line,” Mott said. “But I still get psyched when they’re on my line.”