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Fry to Fingerlings: Mason County Walleye Association Helps DNR Harvest Fish for Over 30 Years

The Mason County Walleye Association is once again working with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this week to harvest fingerling that will be stocked in northern Michigan.

The organization has been operating for 30 years, and that’s not including the several years it took to draw out the plans for the pond, or to build it.

In that time, volunteers have worked with passion to ensure Michigan’s lakes and ponds would be stocked with healthy walleye. At times, it’s required the non profit to dig deep into their pockets.

One of the original members and current president, Lee Mowbray, has become somewhat of an expert in how to raise a large number of fry to fingerling. The DNR will even refer people to him if they are interested in starting a partnership pond.

Never did he imagine retiring into the arena though he spent two summers working for the New York State Conservation Department.

“I grew up out in New York, and because the acid rain from the coal fired power plants, I watched the whole brook trout fisheries die in three years,” he says.

It’s partnerships like these that keep the walleye population in Michigan sustainable. And not every pond in the northern Michigan region is suitable for raising the species to then be transported all over the area — stretching from Muskegon to Mackinac.

During the harvest, volunteers and members from the DNR will take a boat out into the water, collect the fingerlings from nets and dump them into pre-weighed buckets to get their size.

“With the number of fish that make up a certain amount of grams we can do some calculations and we’ll know how many fish are in a certain pound or a kilogram of weight,” says Joe Mickevich, DNR Fisheries Supervisor.

Most fingerling are slightly bigger than a quarter inch.

In a day’s harvest, the teams can collect less than 150,000 fish out of the original half a million. It will take up to three days for teams to be satisfied with the number of fish they collect.

“We’re seeing more like a 75-80 percent on average return on our fish here, which is remarkable,” says Mickevich.

In a good year, the DNR will expect a 50 percent return. To exceed expectations is not only remarkable but crucial as they work to catch up after COVID-19 slowed operations.

“Plenty of waters in in our region and throughout the state really haven’t seen fish since 2018,” says Mickevich. “No fish got stocked in 2020. In 2021 only a few of those lakes got it. And now here we are in 2022 trying to catch up those 2018 lakes and knowing that the 2019 lakes are more than a year in between as well.”

The fish harvested this week will be going to Antrim County, Charlevoix and Benzie County.

The DNR covers a wide jurisdiction and can’t raise enough to cover every body of water every year. Each pond and fish is important.

Mason County Walleye Association is a non profit and relies heavily on donations to operate. This year they’ve had to dip into reserves in order to stay afloat. But the volunteers keep on swimming so people can keep on fishing.

“It comes down to people who love fish and love walleye in particular,” says Mickevich. “It’s real collaboration and it’s nice to see.”

The public will be able to help harvest the remaining fish next Tuesday when the pond is drained for the year. For more information, follow Mason County Walleye Association on Facebook.

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