By Anastasia Pirrami
The non-profit group Perch America has stocked thousands of walleye in Wolf Lake for 24 of the last 25 years, creating a bountiful fishery for the small community of Hammond, Indiana.
Anglers concerned about commercial fishing in southern Lake Michigan, including Wolf Lake, formed the group in 1993, said Bruce Caruso, treasurer and self-proclaimed Wolf Lake Walleye Stocking Project Manager for Perch America. Caruso joined the nonprofit group in 1994.
“The first stocking was in 1998 and I’ve been responsible for it since 1999,” said Caruso.
Perch America is a conservation group that works with multiple government agencies to combat invasive species, habitat destruction, and pollution. The walleye stocking program is part of the Lake Michigan watershed where members of the community enjoy fishing. Caruso likes to call Perch America the voice of the fishermen.
Wolf Lake is shared by Indiana and Illinois. Just over half of that is in Illinois, which is flatter and full of weeds. The Indiana part is deeper and rockier.
Prior to Perch America, the state of Illinois kept walleye in Wolf Lake. However, the Indiana water habitat is more favorable for the fish. They’re a cold-water species, so they migrated to the Indiana side, Caruso said. Fishermen were catching walleye on the Indiana side of Wolf Lake, and when Illinois officials began to see no return on their side, they stopped stocking the fish.
At this point, assembly by Perch America began.
Walleye cost $1 per fish for the first five years of the program. Now they cost about three dollars a fish. All money raised by the volunteer organization goes directly towards buying fish, Caruso said.
That year, $6,000 was raised for 2,200 five- to seven-inch walleye.
Funds to supply the stocking are provided through annual donations and community fundraisers. Perch America has purchased walleye from Richmond Fisheries in Richmond, Illinois every year since 1999 except for 2017.
When Caruso and his team couldn’t get a pike-perch. He went to every donor and said he would return his money. But donors insisted he keep it and use it for the next year, he said.
Donors are invited to stock each year and they or a representative release the fish from barrels into the lake.
“They understand the integrity of the program and that the money is not going to waste,” Caruso said. “It’s kind of a cool thing because people can see where their money is going, so we don’t have a problem with people donating to the cause.”
Indiana’s DNR gives permission to stock Wolf Lake, and that state’s Board of Animal Health ensures the fish are tested and disease-free.
The 5- to 7-inch walleye function better as a predator than the fingerling walleye in maintaining an ecological balance between predator and prey. The larger walleye that are occupied have a reduced chance of being eaten by other species in the lake such as pike and largemouth bass.
The City of Hammond, Indiana operates and manages the lake’s water sports activities and surrounding community-use properties within the city.
Many anglers like to use Wolf Lake to catch walleye and other fish to take home or to catch and release for sport, said Milan Kruszynski, director of the Hammond Port Authority.
Local residents use the lake for sailing, kayaking and canoeing.
There’s no study yet showing whether the walleye breed, so it’s important that Perch continue to supply American Wolf Lake annually to ensure populations, Caruso said.
Caruso and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources placed nets in the lake to harvest the fish in early 2020. Using eight nets over the course of two days, they caught nearly 60 pike-perch. Caruso described the 11, who weighed over 6 pounds, as “a trophy fish wherever you go.”
Caruso said he had no idea what would become of Perch America when he first joined.
“We just take a small sample in the whole lake, [and] So that shows that there is a really healthy population of zander in a lake that is surviving here thanks to our stocking,” he said.
The shallow ends of Lake Wolfsee lack enough rock beds for all the walleye to spawn, Kruszynski said. The Port Authority of Hammond plans to get state permission to place rocks on the bottom of the lake and other shallow areas, he said.
Zander spawn over rocks and shingle in windswept shallow waters where the currents clean sediment from the eggs and aerate them.
“It’s a bit of a challenge because the zander are looking for spawning grounds and they have more zander,” Kruszynski said. “We have to help them.”
The basic program that anglers benefit from is inexpensive, easy to enjoy, and accessible to a small community like Hammond, Caruso said.
“The best reward for me was that one time I had a guy come in and put a five dollar bill in a donation jar and he said he took his five year old son to Wolf Lake and caught his first walleye .” said Caruso.
“And you can’t put a price tag on that. That impressed me so much and it just gives you a good feeling.”