Minnesota’s fishing boom continues to reveal itself in unexpected ways, including spot shortages of tackle at normally well-stocked sporting goods stores.
Fishing license sales are up by 110,000 this year, to their highest levels in 20 years. The hottest category belongs to high school teenagers, as they have doubled their participation to create a trend that couldn’t have been imagined even a few months ago.
And now there’s this: Walleye stamp sales are up 60% from 2019 — amazing because purchase of the $5 add-on is wholly voluntary and not always mentioned as an option by sales clerks. Proceeds help pay for the stocking of walleye fingerlings in lakes that lack natural reproduction or need a boost.
“It’s great to see and it could still be higher,” said Jim Bedell of Hackensack, a longtime citizen volunteer member of the state walleye management committee.
Bedell and Tom Neustrom, a fishing guide from Grand Rapids, were among those who pushed for the creation of the walleye stamp a little more than a decade ago. It bolsters funding for DNR’s stocking efforts in about 900 lakes. They see the sudden jump in stamp sales — increasing at twice the rate of fishing license sales — as vital public support for walleye fishing.
“With more money, it assures the program will continue,” said Neustrom, an original member of the walleye committee.
During a day of fishing last week on a fingerling-stocked lake in Itasca County, Neustrom reflected on the importance of stocking efforts to maintain Minnesota’s reputation as the best walleye-fishing destination in the country.
As if to make his point, he pitched a powder-blue jig and spottail shiner into 13 feet of water. He worked the lure down the side of an underwater embankment, inducing a hard strike. Neustrom set the hook sharply and lifted gently. Five minutes later he was beaming while holding a fat, 29½-inch walleye.
Neustorm said stocking priorities are discussed at nearly every meeting of the walleye management committee. Growing fingerlings is more expensive than stocking lakes with millions of tiny, newly hatched fry. But Neustrom and other citizen members of the advisory group are vigilant about maintaining the fingerling inputs.
Kept in special rearing ponds for about five months after hatching in the spring, the baby walleyes commonly grow to about 6 inches in length — an advantage while trying not to get eaten by larger fish. They are collected from the ponds in October and released according to DNR allocations.
Over time, the agency has moved to lower stocking densities of fingerlings in some locations or has switched from fingerling stocking to fry stocking. The shift has reduced the volume of walleye fingerlings stocked in Minnesota lakes from about 160,000 pounds a year to about 120,000 pounds. There are 15 to 30 fingerlings to a pound.
Neustrom said it’s not widely known that all stamp sale proceeds must go for the purchase of walleye fingerlings — not fry. Moreover, those fingerlings must come from private growers — supplemental to the DNR’s own hatchery production.
Minnesota Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said the surge in the sale of walleye stamps sweetens the DNR’s budget for walleye fisheries. If the pace of sales continues throughout this season, the DNR would receive in the range of $168,000 from the sale of 33,600 stamps. Last year’s stamp sales raised about $106,000.
“This helps our bottom line, for sure,” he said.
But because the DNR already spends about $800,000 a year to buy walleye fingerlings from private growers, stocking levels won’t vary anytime soon based on stamp sales. Besides purchasing about 40,000 pounds of fingerlings from the industry, the DNR grows about 80,000 pounds of fingerlings on its own.
“We stock to meet our management plan,” Parsons said. “Just because we could stock more, doesn’t mean we should.”
According to the DNR, overall walleye populations have continued to increase on stocked lakes since 1977, even though managers are stocking fewer walleyes.
Walleye stamp sales opened in 2009 and peaked the very next year at 25,190 validations. Anglers lost interest in the stamps starting in 2013 and last year’s validations bounced up mildly to 15,255 by year’s end. This year’s sales have already surpassed 12,500.
Phil Goeden of Goeden Fisheries in Alexandria said the sudden change in demand might be linked to public awareness that DNR walleye stripping operations were shut down this spring by COVID-19. That means no fry stocking of walleyes in 2020 and limited fingerling stocking.
Goeden said this might be the year for DNR to purchase extra fingerlings from the industry. But Parsons said it’s too early to tell. A one-year gap in stocking isn’t enough to “crash” a walleye fishery, he said. Moreover, the state’s 10 biggest walleye lakes naturally produce about 40% of the state’s annual harvest.