ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- 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 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.”
For example, 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.”
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.
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.