Minnesota DNR’s 2020 fish stocking successful, despite challenges

Anglers can look forward to positive results from fish stocking that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted in 2020, despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the vast majority of fish in Minnesota waters are the result of natural reproduction in healthy habitats, stocking can provide angling opportunities where they might not otherwise exist.

“This ended up being a productive year for fish stocking even as COVID-19 changed how we performed our work,” said Brian Nerbonne, DNR central region fisheries manager. “Our staff were able to find creative ways to stock fish in Minnesota waters.”

In mid-April, the DNR canceled its 2020 egg collection operations for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and steelhead because the work could not be done safely under COVID-19 guidelines.

Without its own source of newly hatched fish (known as fry), the DNR could not stock its rearing ponds where fry grow larger (into fingerlings) before being released into Minnesota’s waters. But hatchery operations were able to continue with COVID protocols, and other sources of fry and fingerlings helped fill the gaps.

Walleye stocking
Collecting walleye eggs from spawning fish in the wild is a labor-intensive effort that requires teams of six to eight people working closely together. The DNR collects and fertilizes eggs each spring to hatch, raise and then release fish either as tiny fry or larger fingerling size. These fish are then stocked in Minnesota waters that have low or no natural reproduction.

This year, instead of relying on the usual spring egg collection, the DNR was able to use fish produced from other sources.

DNR fisheries crews harvested and stocked 42,000 pounds of 1-year-old walleye from rearing ponds that did not suffer winterkill in 2019. In addition, the DNR purchased about 40,000 pounds of fingerling-sized walleye from private producers.

The White Earth Nation assisted by stocking fry and fingerlings in several Becker County lakes and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe provided walleye fry that the DNR stocked in a handful of lakes. All told, the DNR stocked over 82,000 pounds of walleye, representing about 71% of stocking originally planned for the year.

“We have reason to be grateful despite a challenging year. We appreciate the creativity of our partners and DNR staff who found ways to locate and raise fish to stock,” Nerbonne said.

Muskie work-around
Muskie stocking also helps grow populations for future angling. 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. DNR crews also harvested and stocked nearly 600 yearlings that survived the winter of 2019 in natural rearing ponds.

“The muskies grown at the hatchery had over 91% survival in ponds through the summer, which is outstanding,” said Craig Soupir, the DNR’s Waterville area fisheries supervisor. “And these 17-inch muskies that were stocked will provide an opportunity in the coming years for us to learn important information about yearling stocking.”

The DNR expects larger fall yearlings to have higher survival rates, and by stocking them, the agency may be able to achieve population numbers similar to those reached by stocking larger numbers of small fish.

Trout stocking continues
2020 presented little disruption to the usual stocking patterns for most trout species. Brook and brown trout, and two strains of rainbow trout, are raised using eggs and sperm from captive broodstock. The young fish are grown for several months in hatcheries, and were already growing there when the pandemic started. More than 400,000 rainbow trout, more than 40,000 each of brown trout and brook trout, 35,000 steelhead and 2,200 lake trout were stocked in lakes and rivers during the spring and summer.

Anglers curious about stocking efforts can check stocking reports for lakes across Minnesota by searching the DNR LakeFinder on the DNR’s fishing webpage, or by contacting a DNR area fisheries office. Full information from 2020 will be available online in the future.