The COVID-19 pandemic halted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ egg-taking efforts in the spring of 2020, and that impacted the number of fish that went into lakes on a local and statewide level this past year.
The DNR released about 42,000 pounds of 1-year-old walleyes in 2020 that were collected from rearing ponds that did not suffer winter kills in 2019. An additional 40,000 pounds of walleye fingerlings were purchased from private producers and stocked across the state. That 82,000 pounds of walleye represent about 71% of stocking originally planned for the year.
The DNR’s stocking efforts typically rely heavily on collecting eggs in the spring from fish that are then hatched at locations around the state. Fry -- the life stage of a fish just after it is hatched -- are then either stocked into lakes or placed into rearing ponds where they grow to fingerling size before they are harvested and put into Minnesota waters.
“This ended up being a productive year for fish stocking even as COVID-19 changed how we performed our work,” DNR central region fisheries manager Brian Nerbonne said in a release. “Our staff were able to find creative ways to stock fish in Minnesota waters.”
In the Glenwood DNR’s work area, 8,180 pounds of walleyes were stocked into local waters in 2020. A total of 4,910 pounds came from DNR rearing ponds, but very few of those were fingerlings -- fish measuring about 5-8 inches -- due to no eggs being collected and fry being placed into rearing ponds this past spring.
Most of those walleyes from DNR ponds were yearlings from 2019. An additional 3,270 pounds of walleye fingerlings went into local waters that were purchased from private fish farmers.
The 8,180 total pounds of walleye stocked locally in 2020 was down from 10,817 pounds in 2019. The total number of fish stocked in 2019 was higher too, with most of the fish coming from DNR rearing ponds being fingerlings instead of bigger yearling fish.
No fry were stocked by the Glenwood DNR in 2020 due to no eggs being collected last April. In 2019, 22.9 million fry went into local lakes.
Collecting walleye eggs from spawning fish requires teams of six to eight people working closely together. That posed too much of a threat during the early stages of the pandemic.
While that ultimately led to fewer walleyes going into Minnesota waters, DNR staff across the state have said they believe it will have little long-term impact on the state’s best walleye lakes that have some level of natural reproduction.
“If you think about most lakes in general, there’s environmental variables that create strong year classes or poor year classes across a geographic area,” acting Glenwood DNR fisheries supervisor Bill McKibbin said. “This is no different for our major walleye waters than a poor year class. We actually had some pretty good natural reproduction on a lot of lakes in our area.”
The Glenwood DNR currently stocks some life stages of walleye (fry, fingerling or yearlings) in 71 of the 83 managed lakes in their work area. Most of the larger walleye waters in the area are stocked with fry to supplement natural reproduction.
“We assess juvenile walleye abundance with fall electrofishing surveys, and last fall we observed moderate to high levels of natural reproduction on lakes Andrew, Chippewa, Mary, Minnewaska, and Pelican (Grant County),” McKibbin said. “A strong year class was also likely produced in Lake Osakis based on anecdotal angler reports and some early creel data we’ve collected.”
McKibbin said the lakes that could see the biggest negative impact of no stocking in 2020 are those maintained via fry because they have minimal or no natural reproduction. These are often small bodies of water that tend to support high densities of bass, panfish and pike.
Some of those local waters will get a boost in 2021 with “make-up” stocking efforts. McKibbin said these make-up stockings will account for an additional 6.2 million fry going into lakes in their work area this year.
“Let’s say we have one of these shallow prairie lakes that we can create a really good walleye fishery from fry stocking. Most of those lakes are on an every other year stocking rotation,” McKibbin said. “So if we missed a year we were supposed to stock, that lake potentially wouldn’t be stocked for four years. Those are the types of lakes we’ll focus on, where we think by not stocking fry, we’re going to have a bigger impact than the lakes we think can withstand that none or lower stocking.”
Muskie stocking was also impacted across Minnesota when the DNR had to cancel its egg take for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and steelhead last spring.
In a typical year, the DNR stocks about 28,000 muskie fingerlings in 35 to 40 lakes.
In late spring, Muskies Inc. chapters in the Twin Cities, north metro of the Twin Cities and Fargo-Moorhead purchased year-old muskies from a private grower who had fish that survived the winter of 2019. Fish donated to the DNR grew over the summer at the DNR’s Waterville hatchery, where they increased in size by another 5 inches.
The DNR was able to stock about 1,370 of these larger muskies across the state. DNR crews also harvested and stocked nearly 600 yearlings that survived the winter of 2019 in natural rearing ponds.
Lobster, Oscar and Miltona are the three lakes in the Glenwood DNR’s work area that are actively managed for muskies. No muskies were stocked locally in 2020 by the DNR, compared to 2,068 fish in 2019.
But Lobster was the only one of the three area waters scheduled for stocking in 2020. Lobster, Miltona and Oscar will all have muskies stocked into them in 2021, assuming those fingerlings are available again.
“I’m optimistic,” McKibbin said of his outlook for stocking efforts getting back to normal this year. “We’ve learned a lot about this virus in the past year, and we’ve developed field protocols, which are currently being reviewed, that will allow us to safely complete our egg take and hatchery work within COVID-19 guidelines. I’m hopeful these protocols will be approved and we’ll be back to business come spring.”