ONSTANTIA, NY - Oneida Lake is arguably the world's most famous walleye water. And the Oneida Fish Culture Station (aka Oneida Lake Hatchery) in the north shore village of Constantia helps to maintain a healthy population by producing millions of walleye fry -- released into Oneida and many other bodies of water across New York State -- every year. The egg collection process begins in early spring. "This year ice-out came on March 31," says hatchery manager Mark Babenzien. "We set our trap nets the first day and caught 30,000 walleyes between April 1 and 10, collecting 325,000,000 eggs, and enough milt to fertilize them." After the ingredients are mixed, they're placed in 700 incubation jars. A hose connected to the top of each provides an endless stream of fresh water from Scriba Creek. Another tube, attached to the side, draws the water off. The first change in each egg is the appearance of an eye. According to seasonal employee Mark Pelrah, "Shortly after eyeing-up--a day, maybe two, depending on the thermal units in the pulled water--they develop into fry, rise to the top and get sucked out by the side-tube into the tanks." They're not allowed to stay in the tanks for too long-it's too dangerous. Looking like mosquito larvae, they're extremely hungry and start cannibalizing their siblings right off the bat. To prevent this evil feast from getting out of hand, hatchery staff haul 150 million of them out into deep water ASAP, releasing them in the middle of the lake, where their chances of survival are much better than those that are spawned naturally in Scriba Creek and have to swim through the gauntlet of their peers and other predators waiting for them in the lake's shallows. An additional 50 million are stocked into various state waters. About 1 million are kept to be raised to fingerlings ranging from four to five inches long. Only about 250,000 survive to that size, however, and are stocked into various lakes in autumn. In case you're wondering what happened to the other 100,000,000-something eggs: some are blanks, many die before eying-up, and a lot are lost to cannibalism...life is not easy for walleyes in the embryonic and fry stages. Pet Sturgeon and Fish with Paddles Walleyes aren't the only species bred at the hatchery. For instance, paddlefish used to be common in the Allegheny River system until dams, pollution and over fishing extirpated them from the state. A filter feeder, this primitive looking behemoth--it can grow over six feet long--sports a paddle-like snout that's 30 percent of its body length. The Department of Environmental Conservation can take credit for a reintroduction program that is re-establishing the species in its former haunts in New York's piece of the Allegheny River. The Oneida Fish Culture Station "is presently incubating three jars of paddlefish eggs," says Pelrah. Another hatchery success story is the DEC's ongoing effort to re-establish lake sturgeon in the Oswego River drainage area. Growing to over eight feet long, this ancient (they've been around since the dinosaurs), long-lived (males can live for 55 years, females can reach 150) beast is taking to its former haunts like, well, minnows to water. The results are very promising. Indeed, while still on the endangered species list and protected, numerous sturgeon over four feet long are caught incidentally each spring by anglers bottom-fishing for bullheads in the Oneida, Oswego and Seneca Rivers. Besides the rearing tanks set aside for walleye, paddlefish, and, in a few weeks, sturgeon, another popular attraction is the tank containing adult "pet" paddlefish and sturgeon. The hatchery is open to the public seven days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Group tours can be arranged by calling 315-623-7311. FYI: This year's walleye run up Scriba Creek was average. Granted, this may sound boring but the sight was anything but. Walleyes were so thick in the plunge pool and rapids below the dam that many visitors initially mistook them for rocks. However, whenever one shifted, the chain reaction caused the floor to literally move. For more information about anything at all in Oswego County's great big, beautiful backyard, go to /wp-admin/www.visitoswegocounty.com, or call 800-248-4386.
Photo captions (top) One of the Oneida Lake Fish Culture Station's "pet" sturgeons. (Photo by Spider Rybaak.) (bottom) Walleyes staging in Scriba Creek, below the dam. (Photo by Spider Rybaak.) Contact: Janet West Clerkin Oswego County Tourism and Public Information Coordinator www.visitoswegocounty.com (315) 349-8324