Walleyes no longer fish out of water
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Sunday, 16 January 2005 16:54

The walleye, one of Wisconsin's most popular game fish, is struggling to regain a toehold in the Milwaukee River.

Once abundant, the fish was wiped out by dams, development and decades of pollution.

Today, thanks to a cleaner river and fish stocking, the native walleye is back - with anglers occasionally catching 8- to 10-pounders as far north as Kletzsch Park. The state Department of Natural Resources has estimated that 5,000 walleyes are in the Milwaukee and the adjoining Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers and in the Milwaukee Harbor.

Fewer than 1,000 of them are adults.

Despite this modest comeback, the DNR wants to keep stocking more walleyes and improving habitat for the fish in this most urban of Wisconsin waterways.

"We just don't have enough of them yet," said Brad Eggold, supervisor for the agency's southern Lake Michigan fishery unit.

Healthier rivers

Walleyes are coming back, and fisheries officials are looking at reintroducing lake sturgeon as well, in part because the river system has become healthier.

The three rivers are cleaner than they were 25 years ago. One big improvement on the Milwaukee River was the $4.5 million spent to remove the North Avenue dam in 1997, which allowed the fish to range farther north.

The rivers have been helped as well by fewer sewer overflows, improved farming practices on the upper reaches of the Milwaukee and better control of runoff pollution, said Will Warzyn, DNR fisheries biologist for the Milwaukee River basin.

"It's very cautionary," he said, in describing the improving health of the river system. "We may have won a battle, but we haven't won the war."

The DNR has written a draft plan to stock more walleyes, an average of about 10,000 each year. If approved by agency officials, it would build on work that goes back to 1986. (The public can comment on the plan until Jan. 31.) Funding is unclear, but from 1995 to 2003 about $100,000 was spent in both public and private dollars.

In addition to stocking, the agency would upgrade river habitat. With help from private donations, crews would create additional rocky shoals and other walleye-friendly habitat in key spots along the river that would make it easier for walleyes to spawn.

The plan has strong support from walleye anglers, including the Milwaukee River basin chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow, a group that has raised at least $22,800 since 1998, DNR figures show.

Walleyes range widely, but they generally stay in the river and the Milwaukee Harbor, so fishing for them is easier for shore anglers. That's one of the walleye's attractions, said Gene Schmitt, chairman of the Milwaukee chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow.

"A lot of the people who fish in the Milwaukee River don't have boats, they can't afford boats, and they don't have three-car garages," said Schmitt, who is retired from what is now Delphi Corp. in Oak Creek.

"We've got to think about these people. We have got to have a significant fishery down there."

Competing interests

But as with many natural resource issues in Wisconsin, competing interests are colliding over the walleye plan. Salmon and trout anglers who fish on Lake Michigan - often from boats - oppose stocking more walleyes in the Milwaukee River system.

Their concern: Walleyes planted in the rivers will eat small salmon, which are also stocked in the river and live there for several months before venturing into the lake.

"Don't tell me that a 5-pound walleye won't gobble up a 5- or 6-inch trout or salmon," said Todd Pollesch, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Great Lakes Sport Fishermen Club.

"That's the only place we have to raise those fish."

The DNR's bid to keep stocking walleyes comes as salmon fishing is booming. Salmon were imported from the Pacific Ocean to control the alewife population, another ocean species. Since then, the salmon population has grown and hooked many anglers. Sustained by regular stocking of hatchery-raised fish, Great Lakes salmon and trout fishing generates about $4.5 billion a year across the region, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Walleye fishing, meanwhile, has long been popular in Wisconsin's inland lakes and rivers.

Schmitt said walleye anglers like them for their taste, and the challenge of trying to catch a highly mobile species. "It's a fish that keeps on moving around," he said. "When you hook onto one you always get the feeling you are in Canada."

Since 1995, the DNR has stocked 59,077 young walleyes - 7 or 8 inches long - in the lower Milwaukee River system, according to agency figures.

DNR studies have concluded that Milwaukee River walleyes grow faster than the typical Wisconsin walleye. But as with salmon, there is no evidence that they are reproducing on their own.

The problem is a lack of density. The DNR's Eggold said there are currently fewer than two adult walleyes per acre of water, and according to DNR calculations, the river basin and harbor simply need more walleyes for them to make a go of it.

Expensive proposition

Since 1998, the DNR has stocked walleyes that are as genetically close as possible to the strain of walleye that once lived in the Milwaukee River basin. The stocked fish first came from the Wolf and Fox rivers and now are from Puckaway Lake in Green Lake County.

It's a difficult and expensive proposition. Eggs and milt have to be collected at Puckaway. Once the fish are born, they live in earthen ponds and feed off zooplankton and then must be fed minnows.

Walleyes for Tomorrow in Milwaukee has committed to spend $50,000 over the next five years to stock walleyes, with the money coming from fund-raisers and possibly grants. The group also will help with habitat improvement and river cleanups.

But because salmon and trout spend some of their lives in river systems, the Great Lakes sports anglers are worried about walleyes.

Pollesch cited several studies showing that predatory walleyes have harmed salmon and trout elsewhere.

"The trout and salmon fishery has been a great fishery. Why would you want to put that fishery at risk?" he asked.

"I'm fully in agreement," responded Eggold of the DNR. "If problems arise, we'll take actions to correct it."

At this point, however, the DNR does not see evidence that walleyes are harming the salmon or trout population, he said.

For example, the DNR now uses pens in McKinley Marina that were built and are maintained by the Great Lakes sports anglers. The pens house newly stocked chinook salmon for a time each spring to protect them from predators.

Also during the spring, radio telemetry studies have shown that young salmon and trout swim in lower portions of the river while walleyes move upriver.

As for studies showing that walleyes harm salmon and trout populations, Eggold said the research may not apply to the Milwaukee River estuary, which is smaller and has different habitat than other areas studied.

"My hope is that the DNR can work with both groups," he said.

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