A Hopeful Fish Tale

Walleye1

After another spring melt, the swollen streams and rivers had begun to subside.  Water temperatures fluctuated between 7-10⁰C.  Just in time for an important seasonal event, we made our way out into the field.

Walleye are a popular game fish in New York State, commonly known to thrive in large natural lakes and big rivers.  But this time of year, some populations defy expectation.  Like salmon or trout, some walleye make a “spring run” up tributaries in search of suitable spawning habitat.  In some documented cases, walleye have traveled over 100 miles upstream.  For a large lumbersome fish, swimming against the current is no simple feat.

Seven years ago, a barrier that prevented fish from migrating upstream was removed from a tributary to the St. Lawrence River, called Little Sucker Brook.  Despite its name, this small stream accommodates more than just an abundance of suckers.  Walleye are one of the priority species identified during the relicensing of the St. Lawrence Power Project that would be targeted for restoration through the Fish Enhancement, Mitigation, and Research Fund (FEMRF).  Just this winter, with funding provided by the FEMRF, the New York Field Office Partners for Fish and Wildlife staff worked with a private landowner to install two walleye spawning beds upstream of the removed barrier; meaning stones were strategically laid to provide an ideal environment for egg laying.

I joined New York Field Office biologist Justin Ecret to check in on the project.  He had deployed several cement blocks wrapped in a fine mesh into Little Sucker Brook to try and capture any eggs drifting down from the spawning bed.  For the first two days, we had our doubts that we had missed the run.  But on the third day, we had successfully collected some eggs.  Unfortunately, in the field it is nearly impossible to differentiate between sucker and walleye eggs without a microscope.

Then something happened that neither of us were expecting.  Over the berm, where the water begins rippling over the gravel bed, flashed a large fish tail.  It quickly disappeared again into the murky brown water.  Moments later, a small and large tail appeared together.  My heart jumped at the sight of the fish.  I looked over at Justin Ecret for confirmation; we had seen a small male and large female walleye on one of the rocky beds!

With a boost of confidence, Justin Ecret took a closer look at the egg samples back in the lab.  Sure enough, these were walleye eggs.  After just a couple months of constructing spawning beds, the walleye were there to use them.  This is just the first hopeful tale of these FEMRF funded projects, which aim to improve suitable spawning habitat for walleye with the ultimate goal of increasing the walleye population in the St. Lawrence River.  Watch the video of this exciting encounter:

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