If you catch a walleye in Kentucky today, chances are that fish traces its ancestry to Lake Erie.
Kentucky once had a healthy population of walleyes. But more than a century of dam building flooded the shoals that native walleyes needed to reproduce. The impoundment of Lake Cumberland in the early 1950s helped eradicate the last stronghold of these fish.
Faced with a rising tide of anglers who wanted good walleye fishing to continue, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources bought fish from outside the state for stocking. These fish, which turned out to be a Lake Erie strain, thrived in the new lake environments. The state now stocks 1.5 million of these northern walleyes each year.
But scientific curiosity got the better of some department biologists. Could the native walleye, long believed extinct, still exist in an isolated river in the state?
The Rockcastle, a free-flowing river with its headwaters in Jackson County and its confluence at Lake Cumberland in Pulaski County, seemed like a good candidate.
State Fisheries Biologist John Williams says, “We thought if there were any native walleye left, this is where they would be.”
In 1995, DNA testing of walleyes taken from the Rockcastle River proved the improbable: a pocket of native fish indeed still existed. Last year, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife embarked on an ambitious project to not only save this species, but to raise enough to possibly restore them in other state rivers.
“We’re doing this because we want to maintain as much biodiversity as possible,” says Dave Dreves, state fisheries research biologist. “This is a unique genetic strain that we had to hold onto.”
Walleyes taken from the Rockcastle River last year were milked of their eggs, which were then hatched and returned to the river. “We think the native walleye population in the Rockcastle is relatively low,” Williams explains, “so we’re trying to boost that population before we look at stocking other river systems.”
One area being considered for future stocking of these natives is the free-flowing section of Cumberland River above Cumberland Falls. Other areas could be added as the program expands.
“From a purist’s standpoint,” Williams says, “it’s neat that we still have a native riverine strain of walleye—and we need to protect it.”
Not sure what you’ve caught? Order your free fish identification book by calling (800) 858-1549 during normal weekday working hours.