Walleye Season: A Year-Round Labor of Love

While we’re known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota could just have easily adopted the moniker ‘Land of Abundant and Delicious Walleye,’ and no one this side of the Wisconsin border would have batted an eye.

Each spring, anglers across Minnesota gear up for one of our state’s most popular pastimes: walleye fishing. But for AFSCME members who work at DNR fish hatcheries, walleye season never ends. From spawning eggs to stocking our beautiful lakes with finger-sized adolescent walleye, our DNR workers labor year-round to ensure a plentiful walleye season for the rest of us.

Even in the off-season, DNR fishery workers are focused on keeping Minnesota’s lakes healthy and our fish populations abundant. “The majority of our job deals with walleye, whether it’s taking spawn or harvesting or stocking. Then we do lake surveys and stuff like that during the summer,” explains Tim Swanson, a Local 694 DNR technician who works at the fishery in Spicer. “In the winter it’s a lot of maintenance: patching nets, getting ready for spring, coming out and checking oxygen levels.”

According to the Minnesota DNR, our fisheries produce two to five million walleye fingerlings each year. Walleye occupy 1,700 MN lakes and 100 warm-water streams – that’s a total of 3,000 miles. Our fisheries produce and release those fingerlings for several reasons – and it’s not just so anglers can head home with a cooler-full of ‘keepers.’

Walleye from the fisheries are frequently stocked into rehabbed lakes that were formerly uninhabitable. Once reintroduced to these lakes, the walleye often become self-sustaining by establishing their own spawning fisheries, fostering a healthier environment and giving the formerly unsuitable lakes a boost toward full recovery.

Walleye are also often stocked in popular fishing lakes, especially after a hard winter. “A hard winter is hard on the fish. When the snow piles up on the ice, the light doesn’t penetrate, so the plants suffer and there’s no oxygen left,” Rambow explains. Because these lakes are naturally suitable habitats for the walleye, which prefer a rocky, gravelly shoreline for spawning, the DNR fingerlings grow quickly.

That means more anglers catch more ‘keepers’ in Minnesota’s most heavily-fished lakes – and good fishing leads to more tourism and stronger economies in rural regions that rely on revenue generated during walleye season.

The year-round process of ensuring bountiful walleye harvests is fascinating – and arduous. Swanson and fellow DNR technician Jake Rambow both got into this kind of work because of a love for the outdoors and a passion for conserving Minnesota’s natural bounty.

 “I always knew I wanted to do this kind of work,” Swanson says. He draws much of his inspiration from fond memories of spending time on the lake with his grandfather as a child. Once he’d decided on working in the field, Swanson got right to work. “I found out what degree I needed, which schools offered it, and here I am,” he explains. Swanson has a bachelor’s degree and graduate certificate in fisheries.

Rambow, who holds degrees in fisheries and wildlife, says he knew he needed to do this work because of his love for Minnesota’s natural beauty and abundance. “I just love the outdoors,” Rambow says. “I always knew I needed to be out here.” Both men express a passion for environment and wildlife conservation. “I’d consider myself more of a biologist than an environmentalist, but conservation is definitely important to me,” says Swanson.

The pair became fast friends as DNR interns at the Spicer fish hatchery a few years back, and they’ve built on that friendship throughout their time working together as technicians and members of AFSCME Local 694. They even go fishing together in their off-time. “Tim’s a fishing fanatic,” Rambow jokes about his AFSCME brother.

Fishery workers often travel in pairs, and Swanson and Rambow make a powerful team. Each day they load up their trucks and boats and travel in a two-man convoy to the assigned lakes for the day. They spend hours out on the water, pulling up nets filled with fish, sorting the walleye by sex, harvesting eggs and milt and fertilizing the eggs. At the end of a long day, the workers return the fertilized eggs to the hatchery, where they’re placed in ideal incubation conditions until they hatch. The tiny fish are then relocated to rearing ponds, where they’re cared for until they reach fingerling size (four to seven inches) and can be released back into the lakes where they’re needed most.

Both Rambow and Swanson say being part of a union makes it possible for them to do their jobs well and make a decent living for themselves. Swanson, who worked in retail before joining the DNR, knows the union difference first hand. “The health care, the benefits… I know the union got that for us,” he says. Rambow agrees - having a union helps ensure a safe working environment, and it empowers the workers to provide high-quality services so that our state’s natural resources remain healthy, safe and accessible for all Minnesotans.

Whether it’s cleaning up campsites, maintaining public boat accesses, stocking fish or giving tours of Minnesota’s incredible natural landscape and resources, AFSCME members make Minnesota’s walleye season happen.

Want to see Tim and Jake spawning walleye on Lake Elizabeth in Atwater, Minnesota? Go check out this video on our Facebook page. Content warning: fish stripping is not for the faint of heart.