St. Croix's farm-raised walleye program to upgrade
Includes new water, new recruits
By Charlie Otto Rasmussen, Staff Writer
Siren, Wis.—Nestled in the rolling hills of St. Croix Ojibwe country, an unlikely pothole of water lays claim as the onetime home to nearly 2.4 million walleye.
"The water quality is good; the access is good. It's been a winner," said Don Taylor, St. Croix natural resources supervisor.
Now after 22 summers of service as a walleye nursery, the pond is being put out to pasture. Actually, it's already there. While it appears on maps as a named lake, it's essentially a farm pond replete with wandering cattle inside a barbed wire pasture fence. Taylor said contractors are finishing construction of two new fish-rearing ponds for the 2013 season in the tribe's Gaslyn Lake Community.
"The landowners here have been very gracious," Taylor said from the shore of 'Hedlund Pond.' "I don't know what we'd have done without this spot." Shaped like a figure eight, the shallow half accommodates cows and frogs while the deeper circle of water is the summer home of freshly hatched walleyes called fry. For access to the deep end, which covers about 10 acres, St. Croix pays a $500 annual rental to the Hedlund family.
In an exceptional year, the pond yields more than 325,000 walleye fingerlings for stocking into area lakes. But that number has trended downward in recent years. Taylor said the drop in production seems to mirror changes in the aquatic plant community and an elevated volume of heavy mud sediment.
St. Croix's fingerling net-and-transfer efforts annually run from early July to the end of August. Fisheries technicians employ a 500-foot seine net to corral walleyes that average around two-inches long on early pulls and can extend out to eight inches by the end of the stocking season. Prior to release into local waters, fingerling samples must first pass a pair of health checks from the La Crosse Fish Health Center and a veterinarian.
"Our walleye stocking focus is on lakes speared by St. Croix. Lakes without natural walleye reproduction are the priority lakes," said Taylor. From a 280-gallon hatchery truck, tribal staff distributes fish throughout the region including lakes in Burnett, Washburn, Polk and Barron Counties. The releases afford harvest opportunities for treaty spearers and state-licensed anglers alike.
A pair of St. Croix teens—Damon Bearheart and Jade Merrill—worked alongside fisheries staff twice weekly for much of the past summer. Participants in a tribal youth employment program, the young men said that the opportunity to work outdoors drew them to the fisheries program.
"I like to hunt, to fish, to be outdoors," said 16-year-old Merrill. "Working here can be pretty tough, walking and slipping on rocks. It's a new experience. I like that it [work duty] isn't always the same; it changes."
At Hedlund Pond, Merrill and Bearheart took to the water in chest waders, guiding the seine to shore where trapped fingerlings are weighed and loaded onto the hatchery truck. In another wader-wearing task, they helped conduct a fisheries survey on Loon Creek using shocking equipment and dip nets.
"We try to give the kids a little taste of everything," said Taylor. "It's helpful as they start thinking about future career possibilities."
With the pond set for retirement, student workers will find firmer footing next summer when the half-acre nursery ponds come into service. A combination of grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and St. Croix Tribe is funding the new pond construction. Taylor said that the tribal fisheries program would continue to feature walleye fingerlings.
"The fingerlings give us better survival than the smaller fry," Taylor said.
GLIFWC's six Wisconsin member tribes plus the Keweenaw Bay band in Upper Michigan maintain fish-rearing facilities, contributing millions of fry and fingerlings into area waters each year. Additional American Indian tribal hatcheries in the region contribute millions more fish into lakes and rivers.