SHABBONA – It was more than 20 years ago when Clint Sands helped his father stock the Kishwaukee River with northern pike.
The experience was one of Sands’ first memories and sparked a passion for the outdoors that has lasted his whole life. On Thursday, Sands had a similar opportunity with his 3-year-old daughter, Autumn, who helped stock Shabbona Lake with about 1,800 walleye.
Sands couldn’t help but smile as his daughter grabbed the slimy fish out of buckets with no fear and launched them with an overhand throw into the lake.
“She’s always been that way,” Sands said. “She’ll help count leeches and night crawlers for bait ... she really enjoys it.”
The walleye release Thursday morning was made possible by public donations collected at nine fishing opens at the lake during the year and a year-round donation jar at Shabbona Lakeside Bait,Tackle & Boat Rental store. More than $3,000 was collected.
Denny Sands, Clint’s father and co-operator of Shabbona Lake State Park, said the $3,000 was more than double the park’s previous highest donation for its walleye restocking program and a testament to the support anglers have shown after the best walleye season in years.
“This park is very, very lucky with the public support it gets,” Denny Sands said. “It really says a lot that people are willing to donate to this good cause even in hard times.”
Denny Sands said the now-annual walleye stocking, which has happened in each of the past four years, is crucial not only for the fishermen but also for the lake’s ecosystem. Some fish such as bluegill, bass and crappie can reproduce in the lake, but others such as walleye and muskie cannot reproduce and must be stocked, he said.
If one type of fish is either too prominent or depleted, a harmful imbalance between predators and prey could develop.
“We have to keep it in balance,” Denny Sands said. “We have a real good group of [Department of Natural Resource] experts that lets us know what we need to keep that balance.”
All the walleye released Thursday were about seven to nine inches long and are expected to grow to 18 inches – the legal size limit for anglers who want to keep their catch – within three years, Denny Sands said.
As three generations of Sands released walleye into the lake they have helped preserve for decades, Clint Sands said he hoped the park can continue to offer the same fond memories to the sportsmen who help keep it vibrant.
“The sportsmen here really care,” Clint Sands said. “They know they should give back and it’s amazing how much they do.”