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When Walleyes Ruled

It usually began with a telephone call.

“Meet me at Noe’s Dock at dawn,” one conspirator would whisper to another. “The walleyes are running.”

It didn’t take long for word to get out that Kentucky’s spring migration of walleyes up the Cumberland and Rockcastle rivers to spawn was under way. In just a brief two-week span, hundreds of anglers would launch their small boats into the rain-swollen rivers to motor up the kind of rapids that no sane person would otherwise dare attempt. However, these hardy anglers knew it was the only way they could reach the kind of fish that would cement their place in family history for generations.

Kentucky gained a national reputation for its trophy walleyes in the 1950s, a reputation so grand that even a 7-pound fish wouldn’t draw a crowd. In 1958, Ohio angler Abe Black caught a 21-1/2-pound walleye from Lake Cumberland—it remains the state record after 47 years.

It was the grand finale of Kentucky’s walleye fireworks. Overfishing and habitat alteration due to dam construction put the number of migrating walleyes into a tailspin, taking the popularity of walleye fishing with it.

Today, despite a stocking program that adds 1.5 million walleyes a year to Kentucky waters, fewer people fish for walleyes than nearly every other species of sport fish in the state. That’s a shame, because walleyes are arguably the best-tasting fish in Kentucky waters.

There are still plenty of walleyes to catch, although the number of big ones are nowhere near the glory days. “I think you really have to work to catch the big fish now,” says fisheries biologist John Williams, an avid walleye angler himself.

Kentucky now has two types of walleye: one still makes spawning runs up the rivers, while the other, a stocked Lake Erie strain, spawns along dam faces. Water temperatures approaching 50 degrees trigger spawning activity, which typically occurs around mid-March.

The hottest spots to fish for spring river walleyes include the area below Cumberland Falls and the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in McCreary County, near Blue Heron.

Lake Cumberland hosts sizable numbers of 2-4-pound walleyes that stack up along the rocky riprap of the dam from March into April. Walleyes bite best immediately before or after the spawn.

Anglers use minnows or minnow-like baits to catch walleyes. Heavy white jigs tossed into deep holes near shoals and rapids are favorites of river anglers. For lake fishing, troll silver crankbaits parallel to the dam, especially on moonless nights. Be sure to wear your life jacket and stay the posted distance away from the dam’s intake.


The new Kentucky hunting and fishing license year begins March 1. Make sure your license is current before you go afield.

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