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"DNR Walleye Milking"

on The Boy River – Spring 2002

I arrived at my newly acquired Girl lake cabin on Thursday, April 25th. The cabin is situated on the left side of the channel leading to Woman lake. As far as I could see up the channel or down into Girl lake, the ice was out. On Friday, however, on our way to Walker for our annual pre–fishing opener spending barrage at Reeds, Woman was mostly still covered with ice, except near the shores. Icepack on Woman Lake As I drove over the Boy river I noticed a sign that read: "DNR Walleye Milking Site". I wondered for a bit, and then yelled at Mary, who was driving – STOP! Let's go back. I want to see what's going on.

The DNR just started milking walleyes today. I was told that they just completed the walleye trap yesterday and had trapped very few walleyes last night. The run was just beginning and lasts from between 10 and 14 days. They had maybe 50 walleyes in two different holding nets separated by males and females. As I was to learn later, males caught the day before are kept overnight for the next days milking. The eggs must be fertilized immediately after milking the female to maximize fertilization. There isn't sufficient time to search through the net of wiggling/squirming walleyes to find males. Quite a sight. They start their day at 7:30 every morning and begin milking around 8 am. And I plan to be there to help them do it. I'll take some pictures. As the words left my lips, I remembered that I didn't bring a camera on this trip. We drove home from Walker by way of Brainard where Best Buy had opened a new store just two weeks earlier. Between Reeds and Best Buy – well, let's just say....

I sort'a missed the second milking of the season the next morning. They told me yesterday that they usually finish by 10 am . I got there at 9 am. They were done milking. Since this was only the second day of the walleye spawning run, they did not trap many walleyes. Only milked 24 this morning and they started promptly at 8 am just like they told me yesterday. Tomorrow, they said, there should be a lot more walleyes in the trap. Before releasing the females after being milked, each is measured. The largest one I saw this morning was 690 mm and was tagged.

Left side of Walleye Trap   Right side of Walleye Trap
The Left Side of the Trap
The Right Side of the Trap

The trap extends completely across the Boy river and is located halfway between the exit to Bungy bay (you can see the tree line on the opposite shore of Bungy bay in the right-hand photo) and the Highway 5 overpass. It took them a day and a half to set it up. At this location the river is only three to four feet deep and the bottom is sandy, so construction, goes relatively smooth, although the cold water has a numbing effect on the legs and arms, despite several layers of clothing. Breaks are frequent.

The center of the trap funnels down to a 2–foot opening into a holding net (the lower half of the left picture above). Since the walleyes are "trained" to swim up the river, they never look back and patiently (OK, maybe not so patiently) face upstream treading water. I couldn't help but notice that do spook easily as I was walking around the holding net looking for that trophy that I'll never catch.

On the opposite end of the – let's call it the trap holding pen - are two nets. One holds females on the right and the other males on the left. During the milking process each side is further subdivided into separate holding areas. The size of areas are controlled by lengthwise and crosswise poles.
Image of Holding Nets

Yesterdays trapped males are held in the lower left-hand pen ready to be milked. Today's male catch are literally thrown into the upper left-hand pen. The females that have been milked are carefully placed into the lower right-hand pen and will be released after being measured. Females that are not quite "ripe" are placed into the upper right-hand pen and held for 24 hours. If their eggs ripen by the next day they will milked, if not they will be released to spawn naturally. There must be an anecdote here somewhere about how the DNR handles males and females.

Sundays Processing Setup

I got back to the site at 7:30 the next day (Sunday morning). I noticed that there was an opening in the left side of the net and asked why. They had been having trouble with a beaver, so they left a hole for the beaver to escape and some lucky walleyes along the way. Setup consisted of the "milking table", plastic bowls to contain the fertilized eggs, and several large buckets of water where walleyes were placed awaiting disposition. The funnel into the trap holding net was removed and a pole was inserted underneath the net to "herd" the walleyes (and other fish) into a manageable working area shown below.

The DNR looks for the largest walleyes first, since they are most likely females. I did see one very large male, however, that was among the first to be chosen because of its size. I asked if it was a wives–tale that large old females are not good spawners. Their answer was: In terms of the percentage of fertilized eggs, they are not because they produce so many more eggs, that males never fertilize all of them. However, the total volume of fertilized eggs they produce is still larger than a middle–aged female walleye. Females eggs in a Bowl
Quite curious about how one tells a male from a female, I asked the question to the closest DNR person. "It is easy," he replied. This time of year all males produce a bright white liquid (sperm) when stroked from the belly to the anus. If females are ripe they produce a large stream of very small cream colored eggs, noticeably different from the males bright white liquid that sort of dribbles out. If the females eggs have not ripened, their belly is hard.

Yesterdays Males Ready For Today's Fertilization.
Note that they are all facing upstream just like they were taught

Males Waiting in Holding Net

Well, I just couldn't resist. I asked: "How do you tell a female from a male in the summer?" After a brief discussion amongst themselves a general consensus was reached. The best way is by dissection. Other than that, if you catch a large walleye it is most likely a female. NO experts here. But I did here one remark that one very old codger no longer with the DNR could "feel" the difference and – – – –

While they were mixing the sperm (white) and the eggs with their "magic feather", I asked about the quantity of eggs they expect to obtain from this site and how that might affect the walleye population on Woman lake. They told me that they return 10 percent of the hatched walleye fry to woman lake, which they claim exceeds the survival rate in the wild. From the tone of their response to my question, however, they seemed a bit defensive and wanted to allay their perceived "fears" that this was "a good thing". And I most heartily agree. After the bowl of fertilized eggs is considered full, the eggs are transferred to a plastic cooler that has been modified to circulate lake water through the cooler. Apparently, the cold water "sets" and stabilizes the eggs for transportation to the hatchery in Park Rapids. Using Feather to Mix Sperm/Eggs
Once all of the female walleyes have been milked and their eggs fertilized, they are measured and carefully placed back in the water. It was curious to note that when they measure the length, they do not pinch the tail fins together as I was told that is the proper way, rather they just spread one of the fins on the tape while holding the head against a board. Very fast and very efficient. The largest walleye I saw measured on Sunday was 750 mm or nearly 30–inches.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and documenting the whole process, despite the 30–degree weather and I hope that you've enjoyed seein' how it is done.

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Date Created: May 5, 2002
Last Modified: March 28, 2004
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