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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The return of Kentucky’s native river-run, southern strain of Walleye

The Walleye is native to Kentucky.

The so-called river-run, southern strain of Walleye (Stizostedion vitreum)` once inhabited the Ohio River, and many of its tributaries throughout the state.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), a naturalist at Translyvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, was the first to describe the Walleye in the scientific literature, from a specimen he took in Kentucky from the Ohio River in 1820.

Kentucky’s native river-run strain of Walleye (Photo from KDFWR)

Over time, the native, southern strain of Walleye all but disappeared, a victim of over harvest, the siltation of rivers caused by mining, agriculture and timbering and, and dam building in headwater streams, later in the 20th century, that flooded spawning shoals. Some biologists thought the southern strain may be extinct.

So a northern strain of Walleye from Lake Erie, more suited to lake environments, was stocked as fry in Kentucky waters beginning in the late 1960s.

In 1973, when the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery opened, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) personnel began collecting broodstock in-state, hatching off their eggs and rearing them up to stocking size.

Today, about two million fingerling Lake Erie strain Walleye (1 1/2 inch fish) are produced at the hatchery and stocked in May into seven lakes and two rivers.

Native Walleye Restoration Program

In 1995 KDFWR fishery personnel discovered a surviving population of the original native Walleye strain in the Rockcastle River, a 54.8-mile whitewater tributary to the Cumberland River.

Brood fish taken from the Rockcastle River were used to start a program to restore the native walleye throughout its former range in Kentucky. Stocking began in 2002.

Minor Clark Fish Hatchery just below Cave Run Dam (Photo From US Army Corps of Engineers)

Today, the target production for native Walleye at the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery is 90,000 fingerlings (2 1/2 inch fish). They are stocked in June into four rivers and two lakes.

River-run Walleye are potamodromous, meaning they move upstream to spawn in river headwaters.

In the wild spawning begins in late February or early March, when water temperatures reach 45 degrees. Their preferred spawning substrate is a rocky shoal in two to five feet of water. One female may be tended by several males. Fertilized eggs are abandoned and hatch in two weeks.

Producing native Walleye in the hatchery environment is difficult. The stumbling blocks are first finding gravid females (carrying eggs internally) in the wild and getting them to the hatchery without them being overly stressed. Then, rearing the fish to stocking size, as the survival of fry to fingerling stage is low, as the fish are being reared in ponds.

Size and Coloration

A member of the perch family, Percidae, its common name is pickerel.

The Walleye is fairly distinctive in appearance. It has large, glassy eyes and a prominent dark blotch on the first dorsal fin. The ghostly stare of the walleye is a result of light reflected back through the pupil.

Coloration is dark green on its back. The yellowish sides have faint markings. The belly is milk white and the tip of its tail is white.

The Sauger, which closely resembles the Walleye, is darker, with distinctive saddlelike markings across its back and sides.

Distribution in Kentucky

Carr Creek Lake supports one of Kentucky’s best walleye fisheries (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Walleye have been restored to many of the waters in Kentucky where they were originally found.

Today, populations of the Lake Erie strain of Walleye are present in nine major reservoirs — Carr Creek Lake, Dale Hollow Lake, Fishtrap Lake, Green River Lake, Lake Cumberland, Laurel River Lake, Martins Fork Lake, Nolin River Lake, and Paintsville Lake.

Populations of the native river-run strain of Walleye have become established in four rivers — the Barren, upper Cumberland, Rockcastle and upper Kentucky — and two small lakes, Martin’s Fork and Wood Creek Lake.

Food Habits

The young fry eat crustaceans, insect larvae, and zooplankton, but soon turn to fish. Adults are piscivorous, consuming only live fish

Fishing Tips

Walleye can be caught on a wide range of tackle and techniques. Some of the most productive presentations on large reservoirs include:

• Casting or trolling crankbaits across long, sloping points, flats, humps or channel breaks.

• Still fishing at night fishing over the light of a gas lantern, floating beam or submersible light. Fish on the dark side of the boat. Walleye often suspend in the shadows below the swirls of shad which are drawn to the light. Jigging a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce Hopkins spoon is one option. Let the jigging spoon free fall, then slowly jig it. Walleye will hit the spoon on the fall. Casting crankbaits into the darkness is a second option and down lining live bait is a third productive choice.

• Walleye can be caught on weight-forward spinners (such as the Erie Dearie) baited with nightcrawlers. This tactic is used in the spring when lake levels are high and Walleye locate at the edges of flooded timber along the shoreline.

• Another springtime technique is casting topwater lures on moonlit nights when schools of shad and other baitfish are near the surface.

• With the arrival of summer, Walleye move into deeper water and spinner rigs, baited with nightcrawlers, are a top choice.

Walleye are predictable and may stay in the same general area for months, and can be caught on main lake flats in 25 to 30 feet of water.

Spinners baited with nightcrawlers are hard for walleye to resist. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

The combination of bright plastic beads, a rotating blade, and a live nightcrawler is hard for walleye to resist. Walleye home in on the smell of the nightcrawler and vibrations from the blade. They have excellent vision in low light, turbid waters, or when light penetration is disrupted by wind or cloud cover.

Fishing is best early and late in the day during the summer. On clear days the bite shuts down by mid-morning, when it starts to get bright.

The spinner rig is effective in summer because it is fished just inches off the bottom, where Walleye are holding tight to rock plies, and other bottom irregularities such as ditches or ridge saddles. At times walleye also seem to prefer transitional areas between rock and mud banks.

The preferred rod and reel for fishing spinner rigs is a 6 ½ to 7-foot medium-to-heavy-action casting rod and casting reel, spooled in heavy monofilament (17 to 20 pound test) or braided line. Leaders are usually tied on 8-to10-pound test line.

The business end of this nightcrawler harness is two No. 2 or No. 4 walleye hooks snelled onto the leader, about two inches apart.

While the color and design of spinner rigs is a matter of personal choice, anglers will notice that some color combinations are more productive than others. Anglers must experiment with blade color, size and style to find out which is most effective on a given day.

Creel Limits

The daily creel limit on walleye is six fish, with a 14-inch minimum size.

But check the regulations carefully, as some lakes and rivers have special regulations — a two-fish daily creel limit and a 18 to 26-inch protective slot which means that only fish shorter than 18 inches or longer that 26 inches may be harvested.

For details on walleye regulations consult the 2020 Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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