Advancement in technology, know-how, and facilities in the past 30-years has enabled the population of walleyes in West Virginia waters to expand dramatically in the Mountain State in recent years.
The West Virginia DNR has been working for nearly three decades to establish this popular game fish, but it took several incidents of trial and error to reach where they are today. Today, several lakes and rivers in the state have strong and improving populations of reproducing walleyes.
"That’s to be correlated with our ability to raise fingerling walleyes in our hatchery and stock those,” said DNR fisheries biologist Frank Jernejcic. "For many, many years we were only stocking newly hatched fry, which were like a day old."
However, the opening of the DNR’s Apple Grove Hatchery in Mason County has enabled the state to obtain the fry and raise them to a couple of inches in size. Jernejcic says they’ve realized by stocking the more mature fish, a much larger percentage is able to survive.
While predation on the fry was a problem, it wasn’t the only one. Jernejcic says before the Apple Grove Hatchery was established they would receive walleye fry from other states and needed to stock the immediately out of necessity. The stockings often would happen when the water was high and conditions were less than ideal with low water temperatures. Another problem with the hatchling stockings was a lack of zooplankton in the water–a vital food source for those new walleyes.
"Conditions had to be just right, and sometimes they were," said Jernejcic. "That’s the way we established the walleye population in Tygart Lake when we stocked them starting in 1973. We stocked them four years and we’ve got a great population over there."
However, nowhere has the enhancement of walleye numbers been more successful or more dramatic than on the New River in Virginia and West Virginia.
"I’ve never seen anything like that in my career,” said Jernejcic on a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors.
Graduate students in Virginia discovered a unique DNA strain in walleyes native to the New River Watershed. They were able to enhance that DNA and replicate the strain. West Virginia introduced the fish as fingerlings in the New River and some tributaries of the Upper Ohio River. The results were staggering on the New.
"We started stocking three or four years ago. Those have been phenomenal in the terms of their success and growth rates,” said Jernejcic.
Some of the "New River Strain" walleyes have grown beyond 18-inches in a mere three years. While the DNR is specifically adapted to the New River watershed, the water quality there may be more credited for the size expanse. Jernejcic says stockings of the same fish in the upper Ohio River did not yield nearly as good results.
The early spring is the best time to fish for walleyes, which are more active in cool water. The fish are also crepuscular in nature, meaning they feed best in low light conditions. The best chance of targeting walleye is night fishing, fishing in cloudy conditions, or at dusk or dawn. Early spring is also an ideal time to catch walleye as they come into shallow water for spawning.