In an election year when political outsiders are raging against the system, Johnny Range is also coloring outside the lines.
But Range’s hot topic isn’t terrorism, taxes or Washington power brokers. Instead, he wants more walleyes — in Lake Minnetonka, no less, a body of water better known for its muskies and largemouth bass.
Range, 41, of Mound, is a manufacturer’s representative — a self-described “sales guy’’ — who until four years ago knew little or nothing about walleye stocking. Now he’s a bit of an expert, heading up (as a volunteer) a nonprofit called the Westonka Walleye Program.
“This program exists because walleyes have almost entirely stopped naturally reproducing in Lake Minnetonka,” Range said. The problem, he said, is lost spawning habitat caused by shoreline development, as well as invasive species in the lake ranging from Eurasian water milfoil to common carp.
About four years ago, Range had an “I’m not going to take it anymore” epiphany, and appealed to the Department of Natural Resources to increase the number and size of walleyes it plants in Minnetonka every other year.
Unlike many Minnesota lakes stocked by the DNR with thousands upon thousands of walleye fry, or recently hatched fish, Minnetonka is stocked by the agency with walleye fingerlings measuring about 6 inches long.
In fact, says DNR west metro area fisheries supervisor Daryl Ellison, Minnetonka receives more walleye fingerlings than any other lake in the state.
Ellison agrees with Range, however, that reproduction among Minnetonka walleyes is minimal. “Historically, walleyes probably weren’t in Minnetonka,” Ellison said.
Thus the DNR’s long-running effort to provide walleyes for Minnetonka anglers through stocking.
Which is fine, Range says. But because Minnetonka has so many predator fish, among them northern pike, panfish and bass, the DNR’s fingerlings have little chance to survive and grow to even the minimum size anglers prefer to keep, say 16 inches.
In an attempt to remedy this shortfall, Range four years ago formed the Westonka Walleye Program, with the intent of stocking much larger walleyes in the lake, say those between 8 and 13 inches.
To accomplish this, Range and a very small group of volunteers seeks cash and other donations to auction or raffle at annual fundraisers, the most recent of which was Thursday evening in Mound, at which about 500 people were expected.
“No one makes any money in this effort,” Range said. “We’re all volunteers. All money raised goes to walleye stocking.”
Commonly known is that the DNR each spring traps walleyes, stripping females of their eggs and fertilizing them with milt from captured male walleyes to produce fry in hatcheries throughout the state.
Less well known is that the agency also buys walleyes for stocking from private producers. Such is the case on Minnetonka, which is stocked by the DNR with fingerlings produced by a Spicer, Minn., hatchery.
Range’s group buys walleyes from the same company. The difference is its walleyes are about twice the size of fingerlings.
The hope is the larger fish won’t be eaten by the lake’s bigger fish, and/or won’t be outcompeted for the lake’s forage fish. Northern pike are a particular threat to stocked walleye fingerlings, Ellison said, because Minnetonka pike numbers have increased many times over since the 1970s.
Even if the DNR wanted to stock the larger walleyes Range prefers, it couldn’t afford to, Ellison said. He’s also unsure what impact the larger-fish effort might have on Minnetonka’s broader fishery.
Still, the DNR gave Range’s group a stocking permit, provided its follows agency requirements.
“Each year the DNR tests the different bays, particularly on the west side of the lake,” Range said. “Then they come back to us and say, ‘OK, you can stock, say, 2.3 pounds of walleyes per littoral acre in this bay or another bay.’
“That’s how we do it, stocking the bays on the west side of the lake, bay by bay, according to levels the DNR sets.”
In three years, the Westonka Walleye Program has stocked about 30,000 walleyes in Lake Minnetonka.
Is it working?
The DNR will know more when it surveys the lake in June.
“My personal experience is that everyone is catching more walleyes,” Range said.
Anglers interested in contributing to the effort, but who missed Thursday’s fundraiser, can send a check to Westonka Walleye Program, 2039 Arbor Lake, Mound, Minn., 55364.
The group’s website is 472fish.org.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org