Tiny walleye neighbors arrive

CHASSELL – The population of the Copper Country grew by about 1.1 million Thursday afternoon.

Didn’t notice? Well, that’s because the new residents are only about 7 millimeters long.

Volunteers from the Copper Country Walleye Association fanned out across the Keweenaw Waterway to give these fry a home. It’s part of an ongoing collaborative effort between the CCWA and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to bolster the quality of the region’s walleye fishery, and it’s starting to pay off.

“The overall consensus was even the ice fishermen were getting undersized fish and that’s something we can really be optimistic about,” CCWA president Ross Rinkinen said.

Hooking a bunch of sub-legal walleye might not appear to be a good sign, but that could mean that fry stocked in previous years are growing and more young fish are approaching adulthood.

These newcomers came via truck from the Thompson State Fish Hatchery in Schoolcraft County. Eggs were collected in the Bays de Noc, processed in Thompson and hit the road 21 days after hatching. In the process, the fry are treated with oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that also leaves a chemical trace in the fish’s vertebrae. That’s important because when DNR fisheries personnel want to measure the effectiveness of stocking efforts, they can find the markers on the fish they stocked to differentiate them from the fish that have reproduced in the water naturally.

Retired DNR fisheries biologist and club member Tom Rozich said years of scientific data shows the Portage Lake-Torch Lake chain doesn’t generate enough young fish on its own to keep the population at desired levels.

“To create a good walleye fishery here, you need to stock,” he said.

Given how young they are, it’s critical to get the fry off to a good start. The dozen or so volunteers set out for specific points in the chain to release the fish from their travel bags. The run of recent warm, calm days will increase their odds of survival particularly in shallow pockets where the water is already warming and plankton, a critical food source for fish so small, are blooming.

“It is, on the local level, the people that know the water best. In this effort we’re looking for the warmest water with the plankton growth,” Rinkinen said.

In a few weeks, the CCWA will also stock fingerlings, which are about 1 1/4 to 2 inches long. It’s part of a multi-pronged volunteer effort to make for better local walleye fishing in the years to come.

“What we’ve seen, as they stopped stocking for a number of years, we saw the population come down so we knew, ‘Hey, we need to get more fish into the system.’ As a club, we thought what better way can we support the population and the fishery and that’s by volunteering and forming a club and meeting with the DNR,” Rinkinen said.