Indiana's Natural Lake Walleyes

Indiana's Natural Lake Walleyes

An aggressive and innovative stocking program at Crooked, Sylvan and Winona lakes is paying off with catchable-sized marble-eyes.

Photo by David Morris

By Mike Schoonveld

These days, whenever the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) surveys Hoosier anglers about their favorite fish around our state, walleyes rate high on the list. The most recent survey indicates Hoosier anglers pursue walleyes more than any other stocked fish, which includes Lake Michigan salmon and trout, muskies, stripers, wipers and other species.

Sure, there are more largemouth bass fans and those of us who consider an action-packed morning tugging on bluegills, perch or crappies to be a slice of heaven; but there are actually Hoosier anglers now who are walleye purists. Add the purists to the legion of anglers who like to fish for whatever is biting best and it's no surprise at all to see that marble-eyes rank high.

These poll results are interesting, but the surprising thing is the same polls taken a few years ago yielded totally different results. Walleyes were once so far down on the list that they almost didn't make the list. There have always been a few places in Indiana where walleyes could be found, darned few, and in most of those places the natural population was small. That's not the case these days.

The DFW's walleye stocking program is well into its second decade, and all those stockings have boosted the walleye population in our state's lakes and streams. More importantly, these stockings have boosted the catch rates from nearly zero to quite respectable for those anglers who choose to fish for this biggest member of the perch family.

Most prior attempts to establish walleyes center around stocking both fry and fingerlings. Fry are tiny walleyes, just barely past being an egg. Fingerlings are much bigger than fry, but still quite small. Since the law of any lake will always be "big fish eat little fish," it was a lucky fry or fingerling that lived long enough to tug on an angler's line.

Not that the plan didn't work, but it didn't work predictably. Biologists could stock fish in lakes that looked to be very similar in size, depth and natural fish communities. One of the two lakes might develop into a great walleye fishery, while the other just doesn't produce good results.

That's very frustrating, since when you add the costs of producing fry and fingerlings in state hatcheries, the expense of pre-stocking evaluations, making the initial stockings, follow-up stockings and the post-stocking sampling to assess the success, the result is a sizeable investment. That prompted DFW biologists to ask questions.

Is there a better way to create a walleye fishery? Is there a way that will have predictable results, one where they will be able with acceptable certitude to say, "If we do this, most of the time, this will be the result." In short, can we make a walleye lake at will, and do it at an acceptable expense?

If stocking a lake with either fry or fingerling walleyes didn't yield stable results, what would happen if a lake were stocked with much larger fish? For one, the cost per fish stocked would skyrocket, though part of that cost would be recouped because relatively fewer fish would need to be released. But even if the project cost more, if the increased cost was simply an insurance plan guaranteeing success, it might be worth it. After all, a failed stocking in Indiana's traditional management scheme was a total waste of time and resources.

Fisheries managers have long realized that the larger a fish is when planted in a lake, the better the success. Larger fish are stronger, may have more refined survival instincts and can adapt to food sources better; and as important as anything, they are higher up on the food chain. While a 4-inch crappie is large enough to slurp down a walleye fry or small fingerling, if the walleye is stocked at 6 or 7 inches, those crappies - and many of the other predators in a lake - won't touch them.

That's how the DFW's Advanced Fingerling Project came to life back in 2001. The DFW purchased 31,000 large walleye fingerlings and stocked them into three natural lakes in northern Indiana. Crooked Lake in Steuben County, Sylvan Lake in Noble County and Winona Lake in Kosciusko County shared these walleyes purchased from a commercial fish hatchery in Wisconsin. The fish cost $1.45 each and averaged 7 inches long. Money from the sale of Indiana fishing licenses funded the walleye purchase.

Part of the reason these lakes were selected was because all three of these places were previously stocked with small walleyes, yielding marginal results at best. If this track record can be turned around, it's a very positive sign.

The "stocking" part of the project is slated to be a three-year effort. The initial plants were made in 2001, more "advanced fingerlings" were planted in the fall of 2002 and the final plant was made a couple of months ago. The monitoring phase of the project started in 2002 and will be ongoing for several years. The monitoring is how biologists will evaluate fish growth rates and survival throughout the course of the project to determine if walleye stocking rates were adequate.

Fish sampling will be done using electrofishing equipment, test nets and by gathering creel data from anglers using the lake. Incidental reports will play a part, as well. Other projects are ongoing on some of these lakes and when walleyes are encountered, even if the biologist is sampling say, for bass, those fish will be examined.

"Anecdotal evidence may not be scientific," said Stu Shipman, the DFW fisheries supervisor in charge of the field biologists tackling the project, "but they are important to our enthusiasm, if nothing else. For instance, this past summer at Winona Lake and Crooked Lake, anglers reported catching good numbers of walleyes sized perfectly to have come from the first and second year of stocking. That doesn't measure the exact number of surviving fish, but if there are enough out there that anglers are regularly catching them, it's an exciting and positive development. We did our scheduled sampling in the fall and the numbers and other statistics are still being worked up."

"Walleye fishing at Sylvan is really going to take off," predicts DFW fisheries biologist Jed Pearson. Pearson conducted a fish population survey there last June and found young walleyes from both the '01 and '02 stockings present throughout the lake. Pearson reported anglers are also catching good numbers of walleyes, although by last June, most hadn't yet grown to the 14-inch minimum size limit.

During the survey, biologists captured 103

walleyes ranging in length from 6 to 25 inches. One-year-old walleyes stocked during the previous fall averaged 8 inches long. The 2-year-olds stocked in 2001 averaged 12 1/2 inches. (The four 22- to 25-inch walleyes caught during the survey were part of the few survivors remaining from a stocking of 2-inch fingerlings in 1996.)

Pearson suggested nearly all of these 2-year-old walleyes would have now grown past the minimum keeper size limit. So ice-fishing this winter and next spring and summer could be the start of a continuing upswing in walleye fishing success at Sylvan Lake.

If Pearson's hopes hold true, Sylvan Lake will remain a hotspot for area anglers and continue a run of luck that has lasted 20 years. Twenty years ago, Sylvan Lake was overrun with carp, suckers and small crappies. Any number of carp in a lake is too many and an excessive number, such as what was present in Sylvan, hurt fishing, muddied the water, uprooted aquatic plants and damaged fish habitat.

In 1984, biologists treated Sylvan Lake and many of its tributaries with rotenone to remove the carp and establish a sport fishery consisting of bass, bluegills and channel catfish. The lake's water quality and fishing improved dramatically.

Walleyes were added as a bonus, but stockings were not very successful and were discontinued. Since the renovation, carp reproduction has slowed due to a dense population of predatory bass, which are protected by a 14-inch minimum size limit.

At the time, the cost of the lake renovation project was $125,000, which was paid by funds from fishing licenses and from the federal sport fish restoration program. "I think anglers, lake residents and the entire Sylvan Lake community have gotten back more than their money's worth of investment in the lake," said Pearson. "What we did to turn the lake around in 1984 and the larger walleye fingerlings we are now stocking should continue to pay big dividends in the future."

Based on early success of the advance fingerling project, Sylvan, Winona and Crooked lakes could be the beginning of a new era of walleye fishing fun. There will be stories to tell and anglers will do the telling.

I once heard a person say that as a fun fish to catch, walleyes are sure good to eat. If you don't understand that statement, he was referring to the fighting ability walleyes exhibit when hooked. Compared to bass, northern pike or many other kinds of fish and on the tackle normally used to catch bass, pike or other kinds of game fish, he has a point.

He also has a point that walleyes are sure good to eat. Many people rank walleye at the top of their list for great-tasting kinds of fish. Pan-fried, deep-fried, sautéed or cooked any way you like your fish cooked, it's going to be excellent. It's no wonder so many Hoosiers are turning to walleyes for their fishing fun over the more traditional species of fish found across our state.

It doesn't take many walleye fish fries to make a convert. All these people need to do to change their mind about the fighting ability of these fish, however, is to gear up with the proper tackle to ensure they get the most enjoyment out of their walleye dinner gathering.

The first thing to do is hang up that bass casting rod spooled with 17- or 20-pound-test line. The only reason anglers need heavy stuff for bass is to pull lures through the weeds, sticks and structure where bass live and to quickly pull the bass that bite away from these places. For the most part, walleyes don't live in such areas.

Ultralight gear is better, but it's still made more for panfish. A good walleye rod is a full-length stick, preferably a spinning rod, perhaps 6 to 7 feet long. It should be limber enough to allow a full bend at the tip section when using 4- or 6-pound-test line. Most experts prefer spinning tackle to more easily handle light lines and to cast lightweight jigs and lures.

Walleye pros use 6- or 8-pound-test line mostly when trolling for walleyes. Besides providing a little more strength, many walleye plugs are deep divers and are already stretching the line with 1 or 2 pounds of pressure. If a walleye really belts the lure, the strike can easily break the line before the rod or stretch in the line can absorb the shock.

When vertical jigging for walleyes or slow drifting over feeding flats, many walleye fans scale down to 4-pound-test line. This is a more subtle approach and jiggers or drifters should be much more in touch with their terminal tackle. Ultra-sensitive rods are in order made of 100 percent graphite, boron or other fibers, which easily transmit the twitches and bumps of the lure up the line.

To increase sensitivity even more, choose one of the lines with minimal stretch characteristics that are now available in either nylon monofilament or braided polyester. Walleye pro John Kolinski told me how much sensitivity he wants out of his rod-and-line combination. "I want to be able to tell if my rig is sliding across an oak leaf or a maple leaf on the bottom." From the top finishes he makes in the national tourneys, I've no doubt he can tell the difference.

Regardless of whether you are trolling or slowly fishing your hook along the bottom, a light outfit will allow you to appreciate the fight a decent-sized walleye can give before you sweep a net under it and drop it in the boat. It may not be the high-jumping antics of a hook-stung smallmouth or the strong-shouldered brawny battle of a similarly sized channel catfish, but don't ever think those walleye guys with the right gear are only fishing for food.

Indiana actually has a tie for state-record walleye status with two fish weighing in at 14 1/4 pounds. Leon Richart caught the first record fish back in 1974. Leon was fishing in the Kankakee River. The second record-tying fish hails from the Tippecanoe River. Donald Tedford took this walleye back in 1977. Hoosier marble-eyes don't often grow to those proportions or even to half that size Walleyes in most places don't top 10 pounds that often, but it's more a factor of them being harvested as smaller sized fish than their inability to grow to that size.

That's probably not the case in Indiana. DFW biologist Gary Hudson explained the phenomenon to me. "Indiana walleyes grow very fast. A 4-pound walleye from a Minnesota lake or from Canada may be 10 years old. Indiana walleyes can be 4 pounds in half that time. The growing season (in Indiana) is longer, and the fish are more active. Perhaps there is more food available more of the time, but that fast life comes with tradeoff. Indiana walleyes live fast and die young. By the time an Indiana walleye is 6 pounds, it's burned out. I guess you could say they die of old age while they are relatively young."

Perhaps that's a bad thing, but the good thing about this rapid growth is how fast walleyes can become keeper sized. Except for the 15-inch minimum size limit in the St. Joseph River and no minimum size restrictions on the Ohio River, the rest of the state enjoys a 14-inch minimum size limit. Go back to the lake in Canada or Minnesota where walleyes gr

ow slow. There, it normally takes about 4 years for a walleye fingerling to grow to 14 inches. Here, many are that size by the end of their second summer!

A 14-incher weighs in the neighborhood of 1 pound and makes a fine meal. Many people call them "eatin' size." I'll eat a 14-incher, but I'd rather catch and eat a 22-incher, which weighs a solid 4 pounds. That way I can have one filet for dinner tonight and another tomorrow!

The catch limit for Indiana is six per day. The possession limit is double that, but if your house is like mine, there's little worry about exceeding the possession quota. They don't last that long in the freezer before they become dinner.

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