- Associated Press - Friday, May 9, 2014

PINE RIVER, Minn. (AP) - For the fish squeezers, the walleye season starts about two weeks before the fishing opener.

On the Whitefish chain of lakes, it starts when the water warms to about 45 degrees and the walleyes swim upstream to spawn on a stretch of rocky river bottom. Except they don’t make it past the mouth of the Pine River, where grates funnel them into a trap net.

Here, a successful day on the water is measured in quarts, the St. Cloud Times reported (http://on.sctimes.com/1numqEx).

The Pine River egg take station, one of eight throughout Minnesota at the heart of the Department of Natural Resources‘ annual $3.5 million walleye stocking effort, produced 765 quarts April 23-May 5. This season’s take translates to about 94.7 million eggs. Factoring in the expected survival rate, it should produce 63.7 million fry.

Some of the walleye eggs Brainerd Area Fisheries staff harvests here will hatch in St. Paul, and could make their way into Stearns County lakes as part of Montrose Area Fisheries’ stocking plan.

Only 10-15 percent of walleye caught in Minnesota are the result of stocking, according to Neil Vanderbosch, a St. Paul-based fisheries program consultant for the DNR. Walleye populations are self-sustaining in 263 Minnesota lakes.

The DNR stocks about 1,050 of the state’s 11,842 lakes. Lakes are generally stocked every other year.

In an average year, 350 million to 450 million walleye fry are stocked in Minnesota. Two-thirds are stocked directly into lakes; the rest go to the rearing ponds that produce fingerlings. Vanderbosch said that’s about half the number stocked in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when little evaluation was done. Another change: Today, most walleye stocked consist of fry - mosquito-sized fish produced at a cost of $4 per 1,000. Fingerlings, fish in the 4- to 6-inch range, cost about $1 per fish.

Little has changed at the Pine River site since the station opened in the early 1920s.

Every morning, staff lift the 12-foot-square, 4-foot-deep trap net to crowd the fish toward the platform where the eggs are fertilized.

With long-handled nets on this Friday in late April, Andy Wiebusch and David Lockwood scooped out the fish one or two at a time. The suckers went back into the water immediately.

Each walleye got a squeeze. Ripe females, those ready to spawn, went into the galvanized tank on the left. Green females, those not yet ready to release eggs, went back into a crib. Males went into the tank on the right.

Because not as many males appeared in the traps the first few days, some were held back. Water pumped through each tank.

At the egg stripping station, Mike Knapp took hold of the females in the crook of his arm, and applied pressure from below the gills to above the dorsal fin, releasing the eggs.

“You’re fighting the fish and you’re trying to squeeze it at the same time,” Knapp said.

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