Property manager Jeff Malwitz, who supervises the four-man crew at Cikana State Fish Hatchery in Martinsville, records each load of fry transferred to boxes. Staff photo by Lew Freedman
Property manager Jeff Malwitz, who supervises the four-man crew at Cikana State Fish Hatchery in Martinsville, records each load of fry transferred to boxes. Staff photo by Lew Freedman
MARTINSVILLE — By noon, the trucks were done rolling out of Cikana State Fish Hatchery carrying nearly 2.5 million walleye fry, bound for Indiana waters where it was hoped they would grow up, reproduce and become catchable fish for devoted anglers.

Walleye fry by the millions distributed in a morning’s worth of work. The number was huge, a scope difficult for the mind to comprehend.

Packed in plastic bags, inserted into cardboard boxes, loaded into trucks, they were hauled away after only days of life, part of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ stocking program designed to keep the species replenished and the fishery fine.

The walleye stocking season was ending, and by the end of April, the four-man crew at Cikana, where the state’s entire walleye fry operation takes place, would deliver nearly 29 million fry, meeting the requests of administrators at different waterways around the Hoosier State.

Cikana is walleye central for fry, fingerlings and even some slightly older fish swimming in ponds. But the focus this day was on one raceway of fry, a water-filled container 16 feet long. The fry are so tiny at about one-quarter-inch in length, between 2 million and 3 million fry can inhabit that single space that could tuck into the average home garage.

Peering over the side, the black-colored fry do not resemble the fish they will become but appear to be a swarm of insects, a blob of bugs.

“They’re not very big,” hatchery biologist Kyle Robertson said. “They’re two or three days old.”

If they survive in the wild, which remarkably, just 1% do, the fish may grow to 27 inches or slightly larger. The state record catch is about 9½ pounds in weight. Survival, however, is the biggest issue. It’s a dangerous world out there.

Some people see that survival rate and wonder about the program.

“People think we’re just feeding the crappie,” property manager Jeff Malwitz, boss of this operation, said of one hazard the fry confront. But DNR is retaining balance in certain lakes and maintaining a popular fishery. Walleye is a desired eating fish and a species anglers like to chase. “Whenever we’re out there and talk to fishermen who see us bring the fry, they’re very happy,” Malwitz said. Walleye fishing has many advocates in Indiana, but it is even more esteemed in such states in the Midwest as Minnesota.

“It’s a lot more popular in the northern states than here,” said Dan Carnahan, DNR fisheries supervisor.

Crappie, bass and bluegill are caught more frequently in Indiana, but he said, “We have a pretty decent walleye following.”

Monroe Lake tries, but other species compete hard. “I’ve caught a few walleye by accident,” said Monroe fishing guide Kevin Hill, who prefers targeting hybrid stripers. “I’ve caught them in patches while I’m getting hybrids. You never see them. They’re on the bottom.”

Hill was astounded, though, by how many walleye fry DNR distributes, including many million at Monroe.

“That’s crazy,” he said of the volume.

It was 8 a.m. on a rainy day when the hatchery crew began lining up shipping containers for the fry. The hatchery has a warehouse look, and when the rain accelerated, it made a pounding noise on the corrugated roof. Everything took place indoors, though, and even trucks could be backed up into the entrance to be loaded in dryness.

These are the most unsophisticated of packages. They are so plain they make FedEx look like Gucci bags. The group lined up cardboard boxes 16-by-16 inches in size. White plastic bags, resembling in appearance but sturdier in construction than garbage bags, were fitted inside of them.

The boxes were arranged in rows awaiting the cargo of about 250,000 fry each in a few inches of water, or three gallons. Malwitz said the transport is reminiscent of going to the pet store and bringing home a fish in a plastic bag full of water. He has worked at the hatchery for 39 years and said the method has been the same going back even before he started. Basically, that means the process works.

This team has performed the loading task so often it barely has to slow down. The group constitutes a small assembly line, scooping out the fry, recording the numbers on paper and using a measuring cup to pour them into the bags, then closing the boxes.

There is one additional in-between step, however. Under the loading table is a large canister of oxygen, and before the bags are clipped tightly closed, a squirt of oxygen is shot into each bag. When they began loading, Tom Arthur did the shooting. Arthur has worked at the hatchery for 38 years, since he was 23.

“I know when I get home, I was here,” Arthur said.

He does inhale a fishy smell. Box after box was filled and hand carried to a DNR truck. Many times, the boxes are not visible from right next to the vehicle, but sometimes, a passerby can see them through a back window. Robertson said he gets asked, “‘What’s with all of the boxes?’ People don’t always believe me when I say, ‘Fish.’” The average citizen does not identify with the concept of fish out of water, and when Robertson speaks of fish, they imagine fish of many inches in length, not fry that are the equivalent of newborns.

The goal of the day’s work was to empty one raceway. There was time pressure, though, because the hatchery is often open to the public, and a group of 50 homeschooled pupils was scheduled to arrive for a tour and lecture at 2 p.m.

Malwitz said he wishes more schoolchildren and Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the like would take field trips to learn about the process, DNR and the state’s fish and waters. In some ways, the hatchery is a science lab.

“All the fry start here,” Malwitz said. “We hatch them here.” The team also travels to Brookville Lake, where walleye spawn by a dam and where they collect fish eggs and bring them back to Cikana. The walleye moms are captured in gillnets, and eggs are squeezed out of them through a process called hand stripping. Besides the raceways with fry, there are seven walleye ponds on the grounds of the Cikana East Unit and others for other species, especially channel catfish. Inside, providing the lab look, there is a row of 2½-gallon jars that can hold 360,000 eggs apiece. The eggs are moved to Cikana within three days of spawning.

“Somebody smarter than me developed this a long time ago,” Malwitz said.

One could look at this procedure one of two ways, either robbing the cradle or helping nature along.

This was basically a fry-only day. Andy Richards, the deputy director, set up at one end of the raceway and turned a lamp on. The fry were attracted to the light and congregated within his easy reach. Richards then dipped either a plastic container or small net into the water, grabbing fry in great numbers, then shifted them to larger measuring cups that told him how many fry were being transferred to the boxes.

The hatchery takes very good care of the water the fry swim in.

“We monitor the quality,” Richards said.

Temperature is critical, including when fry are released. In spring, lake temperatures may be 55 degrees, so the raceway temperatures are kept at around the same level. A transition from a low temperature to a higher level too abruptly can be fatal.

When it can be done, the hatchery crew releases its fry and other fish into bodies of water by motoring a boat into the middle away from shore.

“And we just kind of slowly let them go,” Malwitz said.

Partially because of the people coming for a tour and partially on orders from on high, the hatchery juggled its original schedule for the day, committing to fry distribution to places within a minimal driving distance.

Arthur and his truck departed the hatchery for Mississinewa marshes in Peru at 9:45 a.m. toting nearly 500,000 walleye fry. The work at Cikana continued at a steady pace, and the next departure of nearly 1 million fry was off to Monroe Lake with Robertson at the wheel. Monroe had requested 6.4 million fry for the year but was going to end up with 7.2 million.

At 11:10 a.m., Richards proclaimed the raceway empty of fry, and another 1 million were loaded onto a third truck. He was the driver of that one, also bound for Monroe instead of an initially planned release at Eagle Creek in Indianapolis, which waited a day.

“They could well be 10 inches by the end of the summer,” Malwitz said.

Indiana walleye caught by fishermen cannot be kept, however, until they are at least 14 inches long.

“It will take three years for them to be catchable size,” Malwitz said.

The ones that survive what nature throws at them and become big enough will be the walleye the anglers coo over and pose with in pictures.
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