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Where the Walleye Are

Latest survey by KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife indicates a rebound in local walleye population

Photos by Eugenia Jones
KY Department of Fish and Wildlife staff for the southeastern district work together to collect data during the latest survey of Lake Cumberland walleye.  The captured fish are checked for gender, age, growth rate, health status, and parasitic conditions.

Bone chilling temperatures did not put a freeze on the enthusiasm of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Southeastern Division of Fisheries personnel as they went about surveying local populations of Walleye fish in Lake Cumberland.

The official walleye surveys, which take place every other year in late fall when water temperatures are consistent, cool, and cause less stress on the fish, are conducted through a series of two day netting expeditions. Locations for the walleye surveys in Lake Cumberland are chosen through trial and error.  Once “hot spots” for walleye are determined, gill nets are used to collect fish.   Although the use of nets by fishermen to catch game fish is illegal because of the obvious danger of rapid depletion of wild game fish populations, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KFW) is permitted to use nets during official surveys because netting is the most effective method for determining population trends and for gathering data about the fish.

By comparing the biennial surveys, officials are able to identify trends (increases and decreases) in the number of walleye. The surveys also give data in regard to the sex, age, growth rate (length/weight), and health and parasitic conditions of the fish.

To determine the age of walleye, experts remove and examine the otolith (inner ear bone) from the fish.  By counting growth rings in the ear bone-basically one ring per year-officials can determine the age of the fish.  Walleye have been known to reach the age of eighteen years; however most do not survive past nine or ten years of age.

Typically, a walleye will weigh about five pounds and most fishermen consider a walleye more than five or six pounds to be a nice catch.  Walleye must be fifteen inches in length for anglers to keep and normally reach that length before the age of two years.

At one time, native walleye filled the Cumberland and Big South Fork Rivers to such an extent that droves of fishermen, facing cold temperatures and adverse weather conditions, came from far away just to cast their lines for the magnificent walleye as schools of fish made their late February/early March spawning runs up the North and South Forks of the Cumberland.  According to an excerpt from “Native Walleye” by Andrew McClellan published in the Spring 2010 edition of “Kentucky Afield,”  Otis Noe, proprietor of the Cumberland River’s Noe’s Doc in the l950s, would telephone outdoor writers and fishermen around the state each year  to let them know “the walleye are running.”  Each year, his calls sparked a frenzied rush of fishermen to the area.

Today, the native walleye that once filled the Cumberland and Big South Fork Rivers are seldom found there except occasionally in the Big South Fork.  The impoundment of the lower portions of the Cumberland and Big South Fork Rivers during the creation of Lake Cumberland resulted in the flooding of much of the native walleye’s habitat and destroyed their river spawning areas.  Today, Lake Cumberland is kept stocked with the Lake Erie type of walleye suited for and able to spawn in lake conditions. These Lake Erie walleye have now basically replaced native walleye in the impounded waters of the Cumberland and Big South Fork Rivers.  In hopes of restoring the native species, Fish and Wildlife officials have begun stocking native walleye locally in the areas above the Falls of the Cumberland River that were not affected by the impoundment of Lake Cumberland.
Information gathered from the official walleye surveys is useful for several different reasons.  Since the data collected in the surveys provides a snapshot of how populations are doing, the Department of Fish and Wildlife can glean information to make better management decisions.   The surveys are also used to help predict fishing conditions for anglers.

The latest survey of Lake Cumberland yielded some relatively good news for fishermen.  The overall catch rate during this year’s netting survey was up from the previous three survey years (2008, 2010, 2012), but still indicated a lack of larger walleye.  The lack of larger walleye in the 2014 survey is partly because more than three fourths of the survey catch were less than four years old.  However, growth rates have improved slightly from the last few years with male walleyes averaging 18.0 inches at three years old, and females averaging 19.3 inches.  These results indicate that non-native walleye are making a comeback, and if the trend continues, anglers will begin reeling in much bigger fish during the next few years.

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