The long, twisting and difficult road for native Kentucky walleye just may have taken a turn for the better.
For many years until the mid-90s, news of these special fish was almost nonexistent. That's because their kind was thought to be nonexistent. Not so, at least not entirely so. Now, thanks to some extraordinary work by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the native strain walleye have been given a fighting chance not only to survive but to flourish. It's a marvelous story.
Native walleye fingerlings recently were stocked into Wood Creek Lake in Laurel County, perhaps better known for producing the state-record largemouth bass of 13 pounds, 10 ounces.
Fishery officials say they can't know until next fall whether the young walleye will survive. Either way, the young walleye represent another chapter of an intriguing lost-and-found story.
Kentucky's native walleye, a river-run fish, until recently were thought to be extinct, the victims of dams that blocked free-flowing rivers and destroyed the shoals the fish needed for spawning.
But when word leaked that fishermen were catching big walleye in the upper Rockcastle River in southeastern Kentucky, fishery officials decided to investigate.
To shorten a long story (for the complete story, see the Summer 2002 edition of Kentucky Afield), let's simply say that after encountering significant difficulty in testing the wild, free-flowing Rockcastle River, fishery personnel were able to capture walleye for genetic testing. The offspring of those fish became the original restocking pool.
Walleye are stocked routinely in some state lakes, but they are what is known as the northern Lake Erie strain that flourish in a lake environment. Native Kentucky walleye were of a southern strain that flourish only in free-flowing streams.
DNA testing showed that the Rockcastle River walleye, while they looked like northern walleye, actually are a native breed.
Whatever the strain, walleye and their close-kin sauger, rank near the top in most fish lovers' taste test. Walleye can grow to a much larger size than can the sauger, but the two can interbreed to produce the "saugeye."
Kentucky's record walleye weighed 21 pounds, 8 ounces, and was caught at Lake Cumberland. That lake also produced the state record sauger of 7 pounds, 7 ounces. Both fish compare favorably to the world records of 22 pounds, 11 ounces and 8 pounds, 12 ounces, respectively.
They hybrid saugeye record is another matter. The world record weighed 15 pounds, 10 ounces. Kentucky's records, taken from the Ohio River, weighed 6 pounds, 9 ounces.
Appropriately, one could say, 80,000 of the fry from the native walleye, were stocked back into the Rockcastle River last spring, as were thousands more fingerlings this summer.
The Wood Creek Lake stocking, like others presumably to come, is an experimental one. The upper Cumberland River upstream of Cumberland Falls also has been mentioned as a possible stocking site for native walleye.
Given the spawning habitat needed by native river-run walleye, there may be a limited number of Kentucky streams suitable for stocking. But fishery officials hope that over time and with repeated stockings, the native walleye literally will take over those streams.
The goal, according to fishery officials, isn't to produce larger walleye or better walleye, but rather one more in a series of efforts to restore a native species.
State fish and wildlife officials have been successful in restoring wild turkeys, made great progress with peregrine falcons and are well along in an elk-restoration program. Now there is good reason to be optimistic that the almost-forgotten remnant of Kentucky's native walleye population will rise again.
Cecil Herndon is an outdoor columnist for the Kentucky New Era. His column runs every Saturday. He can be reached at 887-3260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.