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Lake Mitchell walleye stocking battle continues

A method of tracking the population of young walleye in Lake Mitchell showed its highest numbers ever in 2013, a new report by the state Game, Fish and Parks Department says.

In September, the GF&P for the sixth consecutive year held its two-hour nighttime electrofishing survey, which is when electricity is sent into the water that temporarily stuns fish that are then netted after surfacing. The fish are eventually released back into the water.

Last fall's survey findings -- released in a report earlier this month -- showed an increase in the population of age-0 walleye, or fish that are younger than one year old. Before last year's survey, which showed 121 age-0 fish were caught per hour, results of the catch per hour have never been higher than 73.

Those higher numbers are partially a result of the GF&P's stocking efforts, which have been ongoing since 2006. But GF&P Fisheries Program Administrator Will Sayler said despite the positive findings from the electrofishing research, the increased abundance age-0 fish will not translate directly to more catchable walleye for anglers.

"With Lake Mitchell and several lakes that are similar, we're working on evaluating the reasons why they don't respond to stocking," Sayler said. "There are many, many factors as to what that could be. We've stocked Lake Mitchell and collected data for the past 20 years. Our survey shows there's little to no benefit from stocking in Lake Mitchell."

Annual GF&P-conducted research shows the population of walleye in the lake has generally remained even and has actually been below target levels for the past 10 years, despite adding 275,500 fingerling or large fingerling walleye -- which range from 1 to 10 inches -- in a process called stocking, which entails raising fish in a hatchery and releasing them in a body of water. The purpose is to add fish to build the population.

Earlier this year, the GF&P told The Daily Republic it will not stock the lake this summer, which upset some local anglers, including Mitchell resident Dave Allen. The last time Lake Mitchell was not stocked with walleye was in 2011.

The GF&P said it was considering suspending the stocking of walleye in the lake altogether, based on research that shows past attempts have been ineffective.

A report examining the lake over the past decade shows an objective of establishing and maintaining a walleye population with a net catch per unit effort of at least five. A catch per unit effort typically is the amount of fish that are caught in a net in the lake for one day, but only once in the past 10 years has that number been higher than four.

After The Daily Republic's story was published, Allen contacted Tony Leif, GF&P's Division of Wildlife director, who responded with a letter and the new Lake Mitchell report, which has a management recommendation that reads, "stock small walleye fingerlings the year after net (catch per unit effort) of stock-length or longer fish falls to 2.0 or less and fall electrofishing indicates poor production of age-0 fish."

Allen said despite any research, the GF&P needs to continue stocking walleye in Lake Mitchell to keep populations increasing.

"To me, it looks like the only time they want to stock is when the results get real low," Allen said Thursday. "I just think they need to continue regardless of what the numbers are. Once the numbers get too low, it takes too long to get them back."

Allen previously brought up the idea of having a local fundraiser to purchase fish to be stocked into Lake Mitchell. He's looked into the costs of privately purchasing fish for stocking purposes and said it is expensive. The Blue Dog State Fish Hatchery in Waubay -- the hatchery from which Lake Mitchell received its most recent batch of walleye -- said the cost to purchase fingerling walleye is $59 per 1,000 fish.

Allen said after pitching the idea of privately purchasing walleye to get stocked into the lake, about 35 people have committed a total of more than $2,000 toward the fundraiser. Allen explained no money has been collected, because the proposal of stocking Lake Mitchell needs the permission of the GF&P in accordance with South Dakota codified law.

"It's not about the cost of the fish," Sayler said, adding that it is a Class 2 misdemeanor to introduce fish into any public waters in South Dakota without express authority of the GF&P. "It's that there are certain lakes that just do not provide good walleye fisheries. It would be less than responsible to stock fish in a lake when our best available information shows it would result in little, if any, improvement in the fishery."

Still, Allen said "there's quite a bit of room for improvement for walleye fishing" at Lake Mitchell.

"Lake Mitchell is important to us," Sayler said. "We know it's a very important local water and we understand that anglers in the area would like to see a better walleye population there. But there are just some lakes that don't get a good effect from stocking."