When it comes to the fish that are caught in Vermont waters, some can be considered more wild than others. At the Bald Hill Fish Culture Station in Newark, growing difficult “wild” fish has become a specialty.
“Growing trout is like growing meat or chicken,” said Christian Thompson, the manager of the Bald Hill facility. “Trout have been bred in hatcheries for over 100 years,” he said, and techniques have been developed to grow trout fast, with a great deal of disease resistance.
Growing walleye, which many consider to be the best tasting freshwater fish in North America, is a much more tricky business than growing trout. “Walleye are not domesticated,” explained Thompson, “They are more of a wild species and they are difficult to grow.”
Walleye have the nasty tendency to become cannibals at various stages of their development. If conditions are not optimal, they will turn to making lunch out of their brothers and sisters.
At the Bald Hill Fish Hatchery, 26 years of experimentation, as well as a dose of trial and error, has helped to perfect the difficult process. The successful walleye program in Newark has been responsible for returning a beloved species of fish to the Clyde River Watershed. Walleye had been the prime attraction of the watershed from the 1940s to the 1980s, but after a precipitous decline in the walleye population many anglers worried that the fish were gone – never to return.
Bald Hill’s Walleye Story
The fish culture station in Newark first started working with walleye in 1992. One of the reasons the job was given to the Bald Hill Hatchery instead of one of Vermont’s four other fish hatcheries, was because it is equipped with the type of dirt-bottom ponds walleye have historically been grown in. The ponds, explained Thompson, were dug by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work crews in the 1940s.
In 1998, the Bald Hill Hatchery weathered a political storm that almost brought about the shut-down of the Newark facility. The Lake Champlain Walleye Association had lobbied lawmakers in Montpelier to legislate the removal of the walleye program from the Bald Hill facility. They wanted all walleye production to take place closer to their home-base in western Vermont.
If the Lake Champlain group had been successful, it is likely that the fish hatchery in Newark would have been closed.
Interestingly, due to worries about fish diseases and invasive pests like zebra mussels, the last year the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station in Grand Isle was allowed to stock fish in Vermont’s inland waters was 2007. Instead, the single focus of the Grand Isle hatchery was changed to growing fish for Lake Champlain, so they initiated their own walleye program.
Focusing only on Lake Champlain has been a catalyst for the Grand Isle hatchery to experiment with new fish culture methods, and they are now at the forefront of a new “intensive culture” technique to grow walleye, which may soon be used at the Bald Hill Fish Culture Station. Instead of in ponds, the walleye at the Grand Isle hatchery are grown in tanks.
“For three years in a row,” said Bald Hill Hatchery Specialist John Talbot, the Grand Isle program has had a high success rate. “They get better each year,” he added.
Talbot has visited and studied the program in Grand Isle with hopes of implementing it in Newark within the next few years. Talbot said the method used in Grand Isle is “the future of walleye” – 30,000 fingerlings can be harvested from a four-foot deep tank!
In a change from disdain 20 years ago to respect for the work currently carried out at the Bald Hill Fish Culture Station, the Lake Champlain Walleye Association is now offering to help fund some of the equipment needed to get the “intensive culture” program up and running in the Northeast Kingdom. “They would like to expand walleye fishing more widely throughout Vermont,” said Talbot.
Walleye grown in Newark are now used to stock, in alternating years, either Chittenden Reservoir near Rutland or lakes in the Clyde River Watershed. The Bald Hill facility also raises all of the salmon for Vermont’s inland waters, the steelhead trout that run up the Willoughby River each spring, as well as rainbow and brown trout that are stocked in lakes, rivers, and ponds in the Northeast Kingdom.
In the early years of the walleye program in Newark, the fish raised were used to stock tributaries to Lake Champlain: the Missisquoi, Lamoille, and Winooski rivers. Each spring, hatchery trucks ranged back and forth across the state to fill tanks with walleye brood stock collected from those rivers, and later to return walleye fingerlings to the waterways of northwestern Vermont.
Eighteen years ago, in 2000, the Vermont Fish and Game Department authorized a new walleye stocking program for northeastern Vermont. According to Fisheries Biologist Jud Kratzer, there were self-sustaining populations of walleye in Lake Memphremagog, Salem Lake, and in Island Pond up until the 1950s.
Kratzer said that walleye in Island Pond stopped successfully reproducing in the 1980s – and in 2006 the same thing happened in Salem Lake. Re-establishment of a walleye population in northeastern Vermont is viewed as offering a niche fishing opportunity to Vermont anglers. Walleye are a challenge to catch in the summer and are very popular during ice fishing season, especially at Island Pond.
In order to build new populations of walleye in the Clyde River Watershed, each spring 10 female and 10 male walleye are collected as they spawn up the river toward West Charleston. Walleye spawn early, so fish biologists are busy as soon as the ice goes out of the river.
Areas of the river are electrfied, and the shocked fish (they soon recover) are sorted for prime brood stock. One female walleye that was not selected for use in the Newark hatchery this spring weighed in at over 11 pounds.
The selected fish are then transported to the Newark hatchery and put into a quarantined building, “Because we want to make sure we pass on no infection to the salmon and trout that are raised at Bald Hill,” said Kratzer.
“From those 20 fish, we hope to get enough fry (baby fish) to fill two of Bald Hill’s hatchery ponds,” said Kratzer. “We’d like to get 20,000 fingerlings.”
Thompson estimated that each female walleye produces 100,000 eggs. At the Newark hatchery, workers massage the belly of each female fish and catch the eggs in a bowl. A few spurts of walleye sperm is all that is needed to fertilize the eggs – but maximizing fertilization is tricky because the eggs are very tiny. Two hundred walleye eggs together would be about the size of one salmon egg.
The walleye are grown to fingerling size on a diet of brine shrimp and a commercial dry feed, but if they somehow become unhappy with their diet even at the earliest stage of development, they will turn into cannibals and destroy the process. If all goes well in the first few days, the walleye will be transferred into the hatchery ponds.
During the first 10 days in the ponds, the walleye will triple their size, but as the fish grow, they can again become cannibalistic. Another tricky time is when the hatchery specialists decide to slowly drop the water levels of the ponds, usually in early July. The ponds are seined for the small fish, the fingerlings are moved into tanks on hatchery trucks, and the final step is to release the walleye into lakes and rivers where they can grow into adult fish.
This year, the first pond was drained in Newark on July 10, and the fingerlings were given a new home in Island Pond later that afternoon during a rainstorm.
In Vermont, walleye season opened on May 5 and runs to March 15, 2019. Opportunities to catch walleye in northeastern Vermont are in Salem Lake, Island Pond, Lake Memphremagog, and the Connecticut River. The catch limit is three per day, with a length of at least 18 inches. Connecticut River catches must meet New Hampshire fishing regulations. No walleye between 16 and 18 inches may be kept, the daily limit is four fish, and only one of those four fish may be longer than 18 inches.
Walleye are sensitive to light, so during daylight hours they tend to stay in deep water. They are found at night in more shallow water.
Walleye (Sander vitreous vitreous) was named Vermont’s official warm-water fish in 1978. The brook trout is Vermont’s official cold-water fish.