The state fish hatchery in Constantia has been a bustling place the last couple of weeks as workers get ready for the walleye fishing season.
That means it is time to help nature along and make some walleyes.
For about 10 days in mid-April, hatchery workers and volunteers collect walleyes from Oneida Lake, harvest eggs and sperm from them, fertilize the eggs and then wait for them to mature into walleye fry.
Most of the fry then are distributed into rivers, lakes and streams throughout the state with hopes of them growing into the mighty fighting fish anglers love to catch — and eat.
Here’s the process:
Volunteer Tom Fleckenstein said workers put nets out into the Oneida Lake and bring in thousands of walleyes from the lake into the hatchery.
Males and females are separated in holding tanks. Then workers do what is called “stripping” of the fish — harvesting the eggs from the females and the sperm from the males. The fish are gently squeezed and the eggs and sperm come out into a large blue bowl.
Another worker stirs the eggs and sperm in the bowl, sometimes adding a bit of water to the mix.
Fleckenstein said this is a much more efficient way to make walleye fry because of the very short lifespan of the walleye sperm.
He said once the sperm hit the water, they live for about two seconds, so they have to meet up with eggs pretty quickly.
He said walleye in Oneida Lake still do spawn naturally, but it’s a hit and miss proposition, as sperm deposited on eggs can be washed away by the water’s current or just not make it to the eggs before they die.
Fleckenstein said once the eggs and sperm are removed from the walleye, they are put into an area filled with water that then is opened and the fish are released back into the Scriba Creek, which runs behind the fish hatchery. From there, they can swim back out into Oneida Lake.
After the eggs and sperm are stirred together in the bowl, they become fertilized eggs and are on their way to being walleye.
They are put in a larger receptacles and iodine and tannic acid is added — they treat the shell on the fertilized egg and also work as a disinfectant for about an hour to kill off any bacteria that may be present. This gives the fertilized eggs a red or pinkish color.
Erika Stoddard was one of the workers on hand April 14 and it was her job to mix in the iodine and then put the fertilized eggs in these long plastic containers that hang on the wall and are dated. Fleckenstein said it takes about 20 days, the eggs have become fry — walleyes that are about as long as half a fingernail.
He said the hatchery makes about 200 million to 300 million fry and most are stocked in water throughout the state. Fleckenstein is from the Niagara County area and he said the restocking of walleye into the lower Niagara River restabilized the walleye population there, which had been decimated due to over fishing and pollution.
Some of the fry are kept at the hatchery and grow into fingerlings — about as long as a finger. These also are stocked in waterways.
And it will be sheer luck if a fry grows into a full fledged walleye. Fleckenstein said the fry survival rate once they are stocked into waterways is about 5 percent to 10 percent, with many being eaten by other fish or predators.
Video from the hatchery can be seen at http://wdt.me/walleye-stripping.