When it comes to fish caught in Vermont waters, some may be considered wilder than others. At the Bald Hill Fish Farm in Newark, raising tough “wild” fish has become a specialty.
“Growing trout is like growing meat or chicken,” said Christian Thompson, facility manager at Bald Hill. “Trout have been raised in hatcheries for over 100 years,” he said, and techniques have been developed to rear trout quickly, with high resistance to disease.
Raising walleye, which many consider the tastiest freshwater fish in North America, is a much trickier business than raising trout. “Walleye are not domesticated,” explained Thompson, “They are more of a wild species and difficult to grow. “
Walleye have an unfortunate tendency to become cannibals at various stages of their development. If conditions are not optimal, they will turn to cooking lunch for their siblings.
At the Bald Hill Hatchery, 26 years of experimentation, along with a dose of trial and error, has honed the difficult process. The successful walleye program in Newark has been responsible for the return of a beloved species of fish to the Clyde River watershed. Walleye had been the main draw in the watershed from the 1940s to the 1980s, but after a precipitous decline in the walleye population, many anglers feared the fish were gone – never to return.
Bald Hill Walleye History
The Newark Fish Culture Station began working with walleye in 1992. One of the reasons the work was moved to the Bald Hill Hatchery instead of one of the other four hatcheries in Vermont is that ‘it is equipped with the type of earth-bottomed ponds Walleye has always been cultivated. The ponds, Thompson explained, were dug by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work crews in the 1940s.
In 1998, the Bald Hill Hatchery weathered a political storm that nearly shut down the Newark facility. The Lake Champlain Walleye Association had lobbied lawmakers in Montpellier to legislate the withdrawal of the walleye program from the Bald Hill facility. They wanted all walleye production to take place closer to their base in western Vermont.
If the Lake Champlain group had been successful, it is likely that the Newark hatchery would have been closed.
Interestingly, due to concerns over fish diseases and invasive parasites like zebra mussels, last year the Ed Weed Fish Farm Station in Grand Isle was allowed to store fish in Vermont’s inland waters in 2007. Instead, the sole focus of the Grand Isle Hatchery was to turn to fish farming for Lake Champlain, so they started their own walleye program.
Focusing only on Lake Champlain was a catalyst for the Grand Isle Hatchery to experiment with new fish farming methods, and they are now at the forefront of a new ‘intensive culture’ technique for raising walleye. yellow, which could soon be used at Bald Hill. Fish farming station. Rather than in ponds, walleye at the Grand Isle Hatchery are reared in tanks.
“For three consecutive years,” said John Talbot, Bald Hill Hatchery Specialist, the Grand Isle program has had a high success rate. “They get better every year,” he added.
Talbot visited and studied the program in Grand Isle with the hopes of implementing it in Newark in the next few years. Talbot said the method used at Grand Isle is “the future of walleye” – 30,000 fry can be harvested from a tank four feet deep!
From the contempt of 20 years ago to respect for the work currently being carried out at the Bald Hill fish farm, the Lake Champlain Walleye Association is now offering to help finance some of the equipment needed for the implementation of the “intensive cultivation” program in the North-East Kingdom. “They would like to expand walleye fishing more widely throughout Vermont,” said Talbot.
Walleye grown in Newark are now used to store, alternately, either the Chittenden Reservoir near Rutland or the lakes in the Clyde River watershed. The Bald Hill facility also raises all of the Vermont inland water salmon, the rainbow trout that make their way up the Willoughby River each spring, as well as the rainbow and brown trout that are stored in the lakes, rivers and ponds of the Northeast Kingdom.
In the early years of the walleye program in Newark, the fish reared were used to repopulate the tributaries of Lake Champlain: the Missisquoi, Lamoille and Winooski rivers. Every spring, hatchery trucks came and went across the state to fill the spawning tanks of walleye collected from these rivers, and later to bring the walleye fry back to the northwest rivers. from Vermont.
Eighteen years ago, in 2000, the Vermont Fish and Game Department authorized a new walleye stocking program for northeast Vermont. According to fisheries biologist Jud Kratzer, there were self-sustaining populations of walleye in Lakes Memphremagog, Salem and Island Pond until the 1950s.
Kratzer said walleye at Island Pond ceased to breed successfully in the 1980s – and in 2006 the same happened at Salem Lake. The reestablishment of a walleye population in northeast Vermont is considered to provide a niche fishing opportunity for Vermont anglers. Walleye are a challenge to catch in the summer and are very popular during the ice fishing season, especially at Island Pond.
In order to build new populations of walleye in the Clyde River watershed, each spring 10 females and 10 walleye males are captured as they move up the river towards West Charleston. Walleye spawn early, so fish biologists are busy as soon as the ice comes out of the river.
Areas of the river are electrified and the shocked fish (they soon recover) are sorted into top notch spawners. A golden female that was not selected for use at the Newark Hatchery this spring weighed over 11 pounds.
The selected fish are then transported to the Newark hatchery and placed in a quarantined building, “Because we want to make sure that we don’t pass any infections on to the salmon and trout raised at Bald Hill,” Kratzer said.
“From those 20 fish, we hope to get enough fry (babies) to fill two of the hatchery ponds at Bald Hill,” Kratzer said. “We would like to have 20,000 fry.
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 squirts of walleye sperm is enough to fertilize the eggs, but maximizing fertilization is tricky because the eggs are very small. Two hundred walleye eggs together would be about the size of a salmon egg.
Walleye are bred to the size of a fry on a diet of brine shrimp and a commercial dry food, but if they become dissatisfied with their diet even early in their development, they will turn into cannibals and destroy the process. If all goes well in the first few days, the walleye will be transferred to the hatchery ponds.
During the first 10 days in ponds walleye will triple their size, but as the fish grow they may become cannibals again. Another tricky time is when hatchery specialists decide to slowly lower the water levels in ponds, usually in early July. The ponds are seines for small fish, the fry are moved to tanks on hatchery trucks, and the last step is to release the walleye into lakes and rivers where they can grow into adult fish.
This year, the first pond was emptied in Newark on July 10, and the fry received a new home at Island Pond later that afternoon during a rainstorm.
In Vermont, the walleye season began on May 5 and ends on March 15, 2019. Walleye fishing opportunities in northeast Vermont can be found in Lake Salem, Island Pond, Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut River. The catch limit is three per day, with a length of at least 18 inches. Catches from the Connecticut River must meet New Hampshire fishing regulations. No walleye between 16 and 18 inches can be kept, the daily limit is four fish, and only one of those four fish can be over 18 inches.
Walleye are sensitive to light, so during daylight hours they tend to stay in deep water. They are found at night in shallower water.
Walleye (Sander vitreous vitreous) was named the official hot water fish of Vermont in 1978. Brook trout is the official cold water fish of Vermont.