PINE RIVER, Minn. (AP) -- They are mind-boggling numbers.
At the DNR walleye egg-stripping station just off the Whitefish Chain's Delta Bay, the DNR is in the process of gathering 693 quarts of walleye eggs for the state's walleye-stocking efforts. With about 125,000 eggs per quart, that's more than 86 million eggs.
But 31 was the number of interest to non-DNR types on hand at what has, through the years, become a major spectator experience.
That's the biggest walleye, in inches, that's come through the station so far this egg-stripping season.
That's big. And that's the draw here, where the Pine River meets the Whitefish Chain. Only a dozen or so spectators braved 25-degree temperatures at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. But many arrived well before then, mulling around the DNR cabin or venturing down to the station dock while waiting for a handful of DNR fisheries specialists to get the day started.
With the cold air temperature and a chilly water temperature of 37 degrees -- something in the high 40s is preferred -- the DNR employees got a bit of a late start Tuesday. The fish, too, were a bit sluggish. Only 53 males and 12 females had moved into the river and the nets at the station since the previous day, when 212 males and 59 females found the nets.
"We should be ramping up to it," Mike Knapp, assistant area fisheries supervisor, said of the walleye spawn. "It depends on the amount of daylight and water temperature, and then we get fish."
Down the hill from the cabin and at the water's edge, a long dock stretches past several fish-holding nets and a live net and then to the egg-stripping platform itself. The DNR fisheries specialists sort through the live net, throwing back all species but walleyes, and stripping all ripe female walleyes of their eggs before releasing them into another net, where they'll be checked for tags then released back into the river.
Females who aren't yet ready to give eggs are placed in a holding net until ready, with males in the other holding net. Then, ripe females are placed in a large trough on one side of the stripping station, with males in a trough on the other side. Eggs and milt are taken from each, combined, then cleaned. About 180 quarts go to a hatchery in Waterville and the rest are sent to a holding facility in Brainerd, Knapp said. After about three weeks, they hatch, and immediately after, are stocked in lakes throughout the area, including the Whitefish Chain.
All fish moving from the lake to the river to spawn are funneled to the live net and ultimately end up here. Most of the females appeared to be in the 24- to 26-inch range -- probably six to eight pounds considering they're full of eggs. Knapp said the biggest female walleye Tuesday was approximately 29 inches -- or about 10 pounds. In all, about 1,000 walleyes typically come through the station each year.
"We've had a lot of males and a few females, but it's early and it's cold," DNR fisheries specialist Carl Mills said while he cleaned the egg/milt mixture -- when the eggs and milt are taken, they're mixed with clay and water to keep the eggs from clumping -- in waist-high water near shore. "It (the slow egg take) is nothing to worry about yet."
Mills, who said this is his eighth year at the station, estimated the day's take at about 25 quarts -- the average female provides about three-quarters of a quart.
"It's earlier," he said of this year's egg take, which started about a week-and-a-half earlier than normal. "It's going pretty slow. The most we've done is 35 quarts in a day and that's usually what you get the first (couple of days)."
This year, the crew set up March 29 and started taking eggs April 4, according to Knapp. That first day, they took 7.5 quarts, and through Tuesday the total was 180 quarts, Knapp said. But when the weather -- and water -- warms up, that could change dramatically, and Knapp expects the crew to reach its goal in the next week to week-and-a-half.
And with that, the crew expects to surpass another number: 68 -- the most spectators, at one time, this egg-stripping season. That came over the weekend, when the 31-inch walleye also came through. It's not unusual to see 100 to 200 spectators at the station on a nice Saturday morning.
"It's always cool to see a big fish," Knapp said. "They (spectators) see a 25- to 26-inch female and they think it's a big fish. That's average to us. We're numb to that."