Southern walleye making comeback in Kentucky
On a cool, early October day in 1958, Abe Black was fishing Lake Cumberland. The Corps reservoir was only six years old but was quickly earning a reputation as an excellent fishery for a variety of species, including walleye.
Black, who was visiting from Shaker Heights, Ohio, put his name in the Kentucky record book by landing a 21 pound 8 ounce walleye – a record for the species that has stood for 57 years.
Two years later, in August 1960, a 25-pound walleye was caught from middle Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake, which had been impounded in 1957 and, like Lake Cumberland, is also on the Cumberland River system. That fish remains the all tackle world record for the species.
Then, nearly 44 years later, in early March of 2004, Dave Dreves, then a researcher and fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, was leading a fish sampling survey on the Rockcastle River, a tributary to the Cumberland River above Lake Cumberland.
They netted an egg-laden, 15-pound female walleye.
Dreves, now an assistant director of fisheries for the state game agency, is certain the three fish shared a common ancestry. They were a strain of walleye native to Kentucky and much of the southeastern United States.
Today, nearly all walleye in Kentucky waters are stocked fish from northern, or Erie, strain walleye. But that was not always the case. Dreves said historically that walleye – generally considered a northern species and the most-sought sportfish throughout much of the upper Midwest – were found across Kentucky, Tennessee and into Mississippi and Alabama, including the Mobile River system.
“Long before any of the reservoirs were impounded walleye existed throughout the South,” Dreves said. “Several years ago we identified a native strain of walleye that still existed in the Rockcastle River.”
The southern strain walleye was once common throughout the Cumberland River and Tennessee River systems and beyond. When the Cumberland, Tennessee and other southern rivers were impounded, the native walleye began to vanish. But they didn’t completely disappear. And with help from guys like Dreves, they’re making a comeback.
Several Kentucky waters harbor walleye, of course, including Lake Cumberland, arguably still the state’s best walleye producer. These are northern, or Erie, strain fish, which are stocked regularly in the many of the state’s Corps impoundments. There is no outward difference between the Erie strain and the native strain fish – you can’t tell a native strain walleye from a northern walleye by looking. But there is a difference. And the native strain is slowly being restored to some Kentucky waters.
“What’s cool about native walleye is that these fish grow bigger than the northern stain,” Dreves said. “The (Old Hickory) world record and the Kentucky state record were almost certainly southern strain fish.”
A few of surviving native strain walleye were discovered in the Rockcastle River a quarter century ago. It was about 10 years later when Dreves encountered the 15-pound brute in the lower Rockcastle. That fish was genetically tested and shown to be a native strain walleye.
“In 1995 was when we first determined that (walleye) from the Rockcastle were different from the northern strain walleye that had been stocked in the Cumberland system,” he said.
Some of those fish were eventually collected and transported to the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery as brood stock to provide seed for restocking. They initially went back into the Rockcastle River. Then in 2007 stocking of native strain walleye was expanded to the Barren River above the Barren River Lake. Three years later the native strain was returned to the Levisa Fork above Fishtrap Lake.
In 2013 they were returned to the Cumberland River above Cumberland Falls and earlier this year approximately 25,000 3-inch native-strain walleye fingerlings were stocked into the upper Kentucky River, which Dreves describes as, “everything (upstream) from Lock & Dam 14, including the middle, south and north forks.”
The delay in reintroducing the native strain fish to the upper Kentucky River hinged on the need to eliminate the Erie strain walleye that had been placed in those waters. The Erie strain fish had not been stocked in the Kentucky headwaters since 2005.
“We had to wait for those fish to die out,” Dreves explained.
Still fisheries management is an inexact science. The survival rate for river-stocked fingerlings, for example, is unknown.
It is known that a southern strain of walleye thrived and survived for centuries then, within a generation or two, they mostly vanished. Part of the cause was habitat loss when rivers were impounded. But there were other, unknown factors, Dreves said.
“There were southern rivers that were not impounded that had native walleye and they died off, too,” he said.
The Barren River native strain population is now providing brood stock for the hatchery and some of the fish have moved through Barren River Lake and been discovered in the Barren tailwater. But Dreves isn’t yet ready to label the native walleye restoration program a full-fledged success.
“We’re getting to the place where the Barren River stockings are able to spawn naturally,” he said. “But it’s not really a restoration until you see that they are going to be self-sustaining.”