Now Top Of The Food Chain

By Ryck Lydecker

Photo of fishing for walleye on Lake HuronRecreational anglers help restore the walleye to its rightful place atop the food chain in Lake Huron. (Photo: Michigan DNR/David Kenyon)

On an April morning, when ken rubis starts rigging the walleye tackle aboard his friend Fred Goodrow's Bayliner as they motor out into Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, you could say he's at the top of the food chain. With a third angler buddy aboard, Bad Frog will tow planner boards on six rods, slow trolling night-crawler harnesses at various depths to cash in on the best walleye fishing Saginaw Bay has seen in decades. But these three "apex predators," named for their position at the top of the food chain — the catch is destined for their dinner plates, after all — actually started this fishing trip years earlier, right at the very bottom of the food chain.

Rubis is president of the Arenac County Walleye Club, one of five fishing clubs around the Saginaw Bay watershed that has helped rebuild walleye stocks for more than 30 years. And they start with the microscopic life at the base of the walleye food web. Working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the clubs manage five small, landlocked ponds where just-spawned walleye fry can grow big enough to be stocked in their natural waters. The action begins in early spring to culture the plankton necessary to kick-start this circle of life. At the Arenac County club's eight-acre pond, it takes several days to fill the pond with 9 million gallons of water.

"Then we feed the pond from a small boat with about thirty 50-pound bags of soy meal mix provided by the DNR to get the plankton going," says Rubis, a 59-year-old angler who began fishing Saginaw Bay in grade school with his dad. "That's for the walleyes to feed on once the DNR delivers the fry from their hatchery."

When mature walleyes begin to spawn in the wild in early spring, DNR technicians strip the eggs and milt (sperm) and mix them together for a three-week incubation. Three to five days after hatching, DNR crews transport the tiny fingerlings from the state hatcheries to the club ponds. Meanwhile, the phytoplankton growing in the ponds have become food for zooplankton that will sustain the young walleyes until they grow to about two to three inches, in roughly 60 days.

"We feed the ponds once a week, with 20 bags of soy meal the first week, then 10 bags the rest of the season," says Rubis. "It's a lot of work but we're pretty proud of what we do."

DNR teams monitor growth until the fish reach stocking size, at which point they stop feeding on zooplankton and must be relocated to prevent cannibalization. Club members gradually drain the pond until the fingerlings can be corralled. Then a DNR tanker truck arrives and volunteers dip-net the fry into five-gallon buckets of water. From there, the fish go on to fend for themselves in the real world wherever they're released, reaching keeper size (usually around 15 inches) in three years.

"The anglers themselves have been instrumental in helping rebuild a fishery that had been gone from Saginaw Bay for the better part of 30 years," reports Jim Baker, DNR fisheries supervisor for the Saginaw Bay Watershed, who works closely with the five clubs. "Thanks to their efforts, in any given year we're able to stock about 700,000 walleye fry." That amounts to some 20 million fry planted in Saginaw Bay since the early 1980s — a far cry from the way things stood for the three or four decades before angler-led propagation got started. By 2007 and 2008, the walleye catch rate in Saginaw Bay reached its highest level in 50 years. In fact, with established brood stocks now in the open bay and the walleye now fully self-sustaining, the clubs that had such a key role in the recovery now send their fry to stock many of Michigan's inland lakes. 

Ryck Lydecker recently retired from our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: April/May 2014

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