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McFeely: Hope springs eternal during annual walleye run

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Mandy Erickson and Ethan Karppinen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources strip netted walleyes of their eggs and milt (sperm) on April 23, 2019, during the annual spring spawning run on Lake Sallie near Detroit Lakes, Minn.2 / 6
Ethan Karppinen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division in Detroit Lakes, Minn., strips milt (sperm) from a male walleye netted in Lake Sallies on April 23, 2019.3 / 6
Female walleyes netted in Lake Sallie are held in a tub before they're stripped of their eggs by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries employees in Detroit Lakes, Minn., on April 23, 2019.4 / 6
Dozens of female walleyes netted from Lake Sallie await having their eggs stripped by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries employees on April 23, 2019, near Detroit Lakes, Minn.5 / 6
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries specialist Mandy Erickson drops a walleye onto a slide and back into Lake Sallie after she's done stripping eggs from it on April 23, 2019, near Detroit Lakes, Minn.6 / 6

Detroit Lakes, Minn.

If you're a walleye fisherman, it never gets old. Seeing all those walleyes, the chunky females and scrawny males, contained in nets in the waters of Lake Sallie near the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offices. Hundreds of them, some of the big females pushing seven or eight pounds, waiting to be stripped of their eggs and milt to make baby walleyes in the nearby hatchery.

It's enough for an angler to look out over the lake and think of the possibilities of the upcoming fishing season. These fish will soon enough be released and they'll be swimming free when the Minnesota walleye season opens May 11. Maybe, with a little luck, a few could end up in the livewell.

Hope springs eternal, they say. Even for the most mediocre of fishermen.

"It's been a long winter, but spring came in a hurry," DNR fisheries assistant supervisor Mandy Erickson said, standing on a wood dock in her camouflaged chest waders as she readied to strip eggs from female walleyes. "It's been fast and furious since we started. It peaked a couple of days ago and now we're starting to see it drop off. It's been a fast run."

It was Tuesday, April 23, Erickson and a team of six other DNR employees, including area fisheries supervisor Nathan Olson, were on their sixth day of netting walleyes out of the lake at Dunton Locks (where the Pelican River dumps from Muskrat Lake into Lake Sallie) and stripping them to eventually provide walleye fry and fingerlings to stock in area lakes.

It's an annual ritual going back decades and the DNR crew was machine-like in its efficiency on this particular morning. It helped that the weather was perfect, blue-skied and windless, making the work that much smoother. It's not always so. Fisheries specialist Mike Habrat remembered a morning a couple of years ago when it was 22 degrees with a northwest wind ripping at 25 miles per hour. The work still had to be done.

"That was miserable," Habrat said. "But you gotta do it when the fish are ready."

The process is simple enough.

Walleyes are attracted to moving water when it's time to spawn, swimming up rivers and creeks to find suitable habitat, so the DNR sets a net in the lake where the Pelican River pours into Lake Sallie. The walleyes are trapped in their natural quest to reproduce. Male and female fish are sorted into separate holding pens (females are bigger and plumper, males smaller and skinnier) and when it's time to start stripping, the fish are plucked from the lake with dip nets and put into water-filled bins.

Erickson and Ethan Karppinnen have stripping duty on this day. Erickson grabs one female at a time, gently pushing on the fish's belly to expel her eggs into a bowl. Then Karppinnen uses a similar method to mix the milt (sperm) of three male walleyes with the eggs.

When Erickson and Karppinnen are finished, the fish are dropped onto a slide and go back into the lake. They appear none the worse for wear.

The bowl of eggs and milt are then handed to Tim Schmid, who mixes in super-fine bentonite clay so the extremely sticky eggs don't glob together and reduce their chances of hatching. Schmid rinses the eggs in lake water, they are put in pails and taken to the hatchery, where they are incubated and hatched.

Erickson said they'll strip eggs from 700-800 female walleyes each spring and three times that many males.

"We use three males for every female that we strip," she said. "That's to make sure we have a good genetic mix and to make sure we're not using an infertile male to fertilize a large mass of eggs."

Each female produces about a half-quart of eggs. That's about 65,000 eggs per fish.

Most of the Detroit Lakes-hatched walleye fry are transferred to rearing ponds in the area, where they are grown over the summer to fingerling size. The 4-6 inch fish are netted in the fall and taken to lakes for stocking.

More than 40 million walleye eggs, producing 20 million walleye fry, are harvested by the Detroit Lakes team each spring. That adds up to 12,000 pounds of walleye fingerlings each year.

And in a few years, if they survive all those hungry other fish swimming around the lakes (including cannibals of their own species), the little walleyes will be bigger walleyes suitable for the frying pan.

Just like all those walleyes swimming in the nets in Lake Sallie. Those fish are what opening daydreams are made of, even for the most mediocre of fishermen.