I don’t fish. I don’t touch them. I don’t eat them.
In fact, the only time I’ve touched a fish in my adult life was when my dad lured me into doing some volunteer work for the Fort Frances Sportsmen’s Club.
And that’s exactly how I ended up in the middle of Vedette Lake last Saturday, wearing slime-drenched red gloves and trying to discretely wrangle the wool off a walleye’s tooth, because I didn’t know enough to keep my hands away from its mouth.
All in the name of conservation.
It was part of a week-long project to check the spawning success of walleye that were introduced there in 1994, stemming from the Fisheries Management Plan for the district to the year 2000.
The idea was to introduce 151 walleye (the number was based on the size of the lake) in hopes they would reproduce and establish a self-sustaining population.
If it works, the lake could be open for walleye fishing in the year 2004—but that’s the earliest. As of now, it is against the law to fish walleye on Vedette Lake.
Four adults had signed up to do duty with John Van den Broeck, a local Ministry of Natural Resources biologist, that day—Brian Love, Jim Gill, my husband, Chris, and me.
Topping off the crew were three future biologists and darn smart kids—A.J. Gill (grade nine), Matt Love (grade six), and Jake Gill (grade five).
Don’t let their grade levels fool you. These “kids” held their own, and could rhyme off encyclopedia-like knowledge about habitat on the lake.
As we stood at the landing and pulled on rain gear before climbing into boats, Van den Broeck warned us that we might not find too much. They hadn’t had much luck that week so we weren’t too hopeful we would find any fish—much less walleye.
While the Loves checked out the three-foot trap net, our first stop was the six-foot one that had been set out Thursday.
Jackpot! Two walleye were in the trap. I wasn’t wowed by the 7.5-pound fish—I was just pleased there was something there. Needless to say, the 9.5-pounder that followed didn’t impress me too much, either.
In fact, I just thought were pretty slimy. (Walleye aren’t normally too slimy. The fish produce the slime when they are under stress, I was told).
My first task was to collect data—measure the length, the fork length, take some scales (like a tree, age is determined by the number of rings), the third spine on the dorsal fin (used as a back-up measure to determine age), and weight.
Van de Broeck said he’d help with the first fish but after that, I was on my own.
Lengths were fairly easy to measure even though the fish flopped around quite a bit. But then when I was handed a Davy Crockett buck-skinning blade and told me to take some scales, I was a little leery. She was still flip-flopping around, with teeth that seemed like they could do some serious damage to my cold, water-soaked hands.
And one slip on my part could mean a fatal wound for the poor fish.
I fumbled through it, with some help from the pro. And determining the sex was easy—male walleye top the scales at three pounds; these babies were hefty females.
By the time the fish were released, I even felt like I knew what I was doing—sort of. I couldn’t bring myself to thrust the scale hook through the jaw, though, despite the fact they don’t feel it.
After the net was pulled up, we set a gill net in about 20 feet of water, then headed to shore so the kids could scrounge around with a seine net.
Donning adult-size hip waders tied at the waist with some rope to hold them up, A.J. Gill and Matt Love secured one end around their foot and on a hand while Jake Gill went behind with a paddle to free up any snags.
Love went deep (he didn’t fall until he was on shallow duty) for the first pass while A.J. Gill took his turn on the second. Neither effort showed much fish—just some dragonfly nymphs, lake grunge, moose droppings, and three minnows (a pumpkin seed, perch and black-nosed shiner).
But there was a lesson in ecology as chunks of moose droppings spurred a conversation on the food chain, and how nutrients are “recycled” back into it.
Four cups of coffee later, we were back at the gill net, which this time pulled in a northern (which was immediately released) and two herring. Rather than just toss these back (this species wouldn’t survive the trauma of the gill net), the herring were used to show the other volunteers how to collect the data.
This time, though, I was the “pro” showing how it was done. And it went smooth (I didn’t have to weigh them) until it came time to determine sex.
I was to make a shallow incision in this roughly five-inch long fish and slice the belly open to the gills.
Out came the Davy Crockett buck-skinning knife. Sensing my apprehension that my “patient” was still moving—albeit slightly—Van den Broeck grabbed the fish by the gills and twisted, exposing its innards at the top.
(An image flashed through my mind of Geena Davis breaking a deer’s neck with her hands after she hit it with a car in the movie “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”)
After that, the cut was a little messy but it did the job. One male, one female. Then came Fish Anatomy 101, including a search for parasites. The fish then were thrown back to become part of the “food chain.”
That was it. Our work was done. And I have to admit, I had a good time.
As for what was learned about the walleye, the MNR still doesn’t have any answers. While it seemed positive the females had grown so quickly, it indicated they didn’t have a lot of competition for food (the normal mortality rate is 30 percent).
There also was some evidence of recruitment, with one 12-inch walleye found earlier in the week to indicate successful spawning. But Van den Broeck noted they didn’t catch many fish of any species, even though many live in the lake, including herring, northerns, pumpkin seeds, white suckers, and perch.
More work will need to be done in the years ahead to see if there would ever be a self-sustaining walleye population in Vedette Lake.
And with any luck, I’ll be lured in.