Minnesota DNR marks walleye milestone

As anglers across the state prepare for the kick-off to walleye season in a couple of weeks, the Minnesota DNR is already celebrating netting walleye from the Cannon River for the first time in 31 years.

"How can this not be exciting for anybody?  This is a blast," says Craig Soupir, Waterville Area Fisheries and Hatchery Supervisor.

Soupir and his staff smiling ear to ear in mid-April because the walleye they were catching and their enormous significance.  As the fish are taken quickly to the hatchery, so the eggs can be stripped, fertilized, and ultimately sent out to stock other lakes. This is also proof of a strengthened population of Minnesota’s favorite fish in the southern part of the state, particularly the lower Mississippi walleye strain.

"Walleye are important, it’s in our culture, our heritage," says Soupir. "These seem to fit better in southern Minnesota. We don’t know why.  It’s not a super strain, we don’t think we should take these fish up north and stock them there. They are fit for southern Minnesota and this watershed.

These same waters of the Cannon River and Lake Tatonka were used as an egg take from the early 1980s to 1992 but abandoned when the DNR realized it was taking two weeks to harvest the same quota of eggs, harvests up north were reaching in a single day.

"And that’s what counts," says DNR researcher Loren Miller. "Not how much do we put in but how much is an angler going to catch three years down the line."

Through years of research and DNA testing, fisheries geneticist Miller helped reveal the lower Mississippi strain has been surviving in the Cannon River all these decades. "Just a single scale is enough to get the DNA from for this fingerprint technique."

In some situations, making up for 80% of the walleye even though the DNR was stocking with other strains of the fish. Natural reproduction, by far, is the best return on the DNR's investment and the ultimate goal, so someday resources may be able to be put in other directions.

"We want to make more Lake Sarah’s we can let them self-reproduce, and we can walk away and not stock them anymore," says Soupir. "The chances of that happening, maybe not great, but there might be other lakes this happens in and that’s our goal."

The DNR also has a goal of getting funding approval for a new Waterville fish hatchery. The 70-year-old building is the largest cool water fish hatchery in the state and in need of critical repairs.

"We're making it work for now," says Soupir.

The Waterville State Fish Hatchery will host an open house on Thursday, May 11 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The public is invited to come out and see the hatchery and talk with staff.