FRANKFORT – Native walleye have returned to the Kentucky River after a decades-long absence.
Fisheries employees with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stocked more than 25,000 native southern strain walleye in the three forks of the Kentucky River above Lock and Dam 14 near Beattyville. The walleye, measuring 2-3 inches, went into the river last month.
“It’s neat to think that maybe 50 years from now, we may have revived our native walleye populations,” said Dave Dreves, assistant director over fisheries research at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “One day, anglers might be catching a state record walleye. I think that’s entirely possible.”
Kentucky’s current state record is a 21-pound, 8-ounce walleye caught by angler Abe Black out of Lake Cumberland in 1958. The world record walleye is a 25-pound fish caught in Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake in 1960.
Intense fishing pressure, poor water conditions, sedimentation and the flooding of spawning shoals as rivers were dammed combined to nearly wipe out the native walleyes. In their place, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife began stocking a northern strain of walleye better suited for lakes.
The discovery of a remnant population of native walleye in 1995 triggered an effort to restore the natives throughout their former range. Since restocking began in 2002, native walleye have been stocked in the Rockcastle River, Wood Creek Lake, Barren River, Levisa Fork, the Cumberland River above Cumberland Falls,, Martins Fork Lake, Drakes Creek and this year, the Kentucky River.
Despite the difficulty of raising this strain of walleye, employees of the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery managed to produce 150,000 fingerlings from just three female broodfish this year. More broodfish could not be obtained from the wild due to heavy rains that made finding the egg-laden female walleyes difficult.
Once established, the southern strain of walleye tend to grow larger and faster than their northern counterparts. Researchers are optimistic that restoration of these native fish to their former range is possible.
“We’re getting broodfish weighing 8 pounds out of the Barren River,” Dreves noted. “We think water conditions have improved to the point where native walleye can make a comeback.”