Search Is on for Southern Walleye
By DAVID RAINER
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Fisheries Section is looking for a few good southern walleye.
Yes, believe it or not, there are walleye in Alabama, just not many of them these days. Indeed, the popular and abundant northern walleye has a southern cousin. Unfortunately, the southern strain endemic to Alabama and Mississippi has been on the decline for the past few decades because of changes in water flow and the resulting siltation of the spawning grounds.
The population in Alabama has now reached a point that the Fisheries Section is attempting to capture fish to establish a brood stock at the Marion Fish Hatchery.
Despite significant effort, fisheries biologists have had only limited success in collecting southern walleye for the project. Only eight males were caught in the latest sampling effort at Hatchet Creek, a Coosa River tributary that runs into Lake Mitchell.
“Southern walleye weren’t common all over Alabama, but there were good populations in certain areas in the past,” said Steve Rider, aquatic resources coordinator with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “Hatchet Creek, the Black Warrior River, the Coosa River and the Tallapoosa River had decent populations, meaning anglers could go out and catch a few fish.
“Historically, at Hatchet Creek for instance, the fish would run up into the creek in the wintertime. A lot of the guys would fish right off the shore. There’s a bridge across the creek, and they would fish right at the bridge with jigs and minnows and catch walleye. About 25 years ago there was a deep hole. But that’s not there any more. Some people would catch them at the mouth of Hatchet Creek, and occasionally they would catch a walleye while they were crappie fishing with small jigs or minnows.”
Now the Fisheries Section only rarely receives a report from an angler who caught a walleye. The days of anglers targeting walleye just aren’t there any more.
“There are a few who still target them, but the last few times we’ve talked to them they haven’t caught anything,” Rider said.
Unlike its northern cousin, the southern walleye is more of at home in Alabama’s cooler rivers and creeks, according to Rider. On the other hand, the northern walleye has adapted very well to the lakes and reservoirs from Tennessee to Canada.
“Our fish are more riverine, so when the impoundments went in the siltation basically suffocated the spawning gravel,” Rider said. “These fish need a clean, cool, gravel bottom to spawn successfully.”
When he was at Auburn in the early 1990s, Rider was involved in a study for the Conservation Department that sampled southern walleye across the state. He remembers in 1993 that it didn’t take much effort to catch about 20 fish in Hatchet Creek.
“Fast forward about 15 years when we started making plans to develop a brood stock,” he said. “We went back to Hatchet Creek and saw how bad it had filled in and we didn’t get a lot of walleye.
“A lot of the fish we collect are in deep holes next to woody debris. If they come up in Hatchet Creek to spawn, we have a chance to catch them. Once they move out of Hatchet Creek, we don’t know where they go. We put sonic tags in a couple of males. We tried to follow them, but we lost them. They probably hang out in Lake Mitchell where there is a deep water spring. We haven’t been able to locate them, but they do have to have cool water.”
The state record for walleye is 10 pounds and 14 ounces, a fish that was caught in 1980 at Weiss Reservoir by Julia Hurley. Rider suspects the record fish is a northern strain. The largest southern walleye he’s seen is a six-pound female.
“The fish have been hard to find,” he said. “We had our best year in 2006 when we collected 15 fish. It’s hit or miss, and it takes a lot of effort to get a few fish. We’re setting gill nets, hoop nets, trap nets and we’re electrofishing. We’re throwing everything we have out in the water.
“The goal right now is to identify sources for brood stock. We’re sampling as many areas where walleye have been caught in the past to identify sources to get enough fish to develop a brood stock. If we can develop brood stock, then we hope to restore, restock those fish back to those areas where there was a historical fishery.”
With the fish collected in 2006, the hatchery was able to produce 6,500 fingerlings that were released into Lake Mitchell. About 500 fingerlings were saved for brood stock.
“The thing about the brood stock is it’s tough to keep those fish alive in the hot summer months at Marion,” Rider said. “Our hatchery has been running cool water from the wells through the ponds, but we have had some mortality. Once we get a brood stock going, we’re going to explore more ways to keep them alive. We’re looking at National Forest lakes that are deep and cool.”
The Fisheries Section is also looking for any information they can get from Alabama’s anglers about southern walleye, which is darker and more mottled than its northern cousin.
“We’re asking anglers to let us know if they catch a walleye,” Rider said. “We would like to know exactly where they caught it. If they could take a fin clip about the size of a thumbnail, we can take the tissue and determine if it is the southern walleye strain. We are looking for any information that would help us concentrate our collection efforts.
“If they catch a walleye and want to keep it alive to donate to the hatchery, that would be the best-case scenario.”
Anglers who wish to donate a live fish or a fin clipping should contact the Fisheries Section at 334-242-3471.
PHOTOS: The population of southern walleye, a distinct strain that is native to Alabama and Mississippi, has declined to the point the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Fisheries Section is attempting to locate fish to use as brood stock at the Marion Fish Hatchery. The hatchery was able to produce about 7,000 fingerlings in 2006, but fisheries biologists have not had much luck in their most recent efforts to collect additional fish.