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There's a 'new' fish in town

(l-r) Candi Burrows, Dickey Porter and Erik Almy are just a few of the area anglers who have caught walleye in recent weeks. (Photos: Contributed)
(l-r) Candi Burrows, Dickey Porter and Erik Almy are just a few of the area anglers who have caught walleye in recent weeks. (Photos: Contributed)
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Area anglers are buzzing about a "new fish in town."

Fishermen have been "wowed" by the great success of the Florida bass stocking program in Chickamauga Lake in recent years. The program has resulted in huge largemouth bass, including a new state record (set Feb. 13, 2015).

But lately more anglers are buzzing about a fish better known to Northerners. Walleye are making a strong showing in the headwaters of Chickamauga Lake and beyond.

Walleye is a freshwater "perciform" fish native to most of Canada and to the Northern United States. It is a first cousin to a sauger, which were once plentiful in the Tennessee River. However sauger have been in a dramatic decline for more than a decade.

Walleye have always been present in small numbers in Tennessee, and in fact, Old Hickory Lake north of Nashville lays claim to the world record walleye of 25 pounds caught in 1960. However walleye have never really caught hold in the Tennessee River.

A few years ago TWRA fisheries biologist Mike Jolley and his peers decided it was time to give walleye a boost in hopes of replacing the declining sauger fishery.

"Walleye live longer than sauger, they get bigger and they are easier to raise in hatcheries," said Jolley. "We also hope they'll offer more of a year-round fishing opportunity than sauger overall."

The first stocking of walleye in our area was in Watts Bar Lake, upstream of Watts Bar Dam in 2011. However, beginning in 2013 they began stocking walleye fingerlings annually in Chickamauga Lake, downstream of Watts Bar Dam. When the fingerlings are stocked they are about 1.5 inches long. Jolley said those that survive could grow to the legal 16-inch size in two years, and for sure by age three. This year is age three for the 2013 stockings, age five for the 2011 stockings.

While anglers were catching a few legal walleye in 2015, this Spring they are showing up in far greater numbers.

Cleveland angler Erik Almy said he recently experienced "an epic trip."

"I have had some extremely memorable fishing trips in the past few years," said Almy following a recent trip. "Prior to today I had caught two walleye in my life, both in the last couple weeks, today we caught fifteen. That is fifteen keepers to be perfectly clear. Three anglers on the boat and a three-person limit. My largest two were 21 inches and 23.5 inches."

Candi Burrows said, "My first time catching them I brought six to the boat. It was a 'Bucket List' day I'll never forget. One thing for sure you don't lip that fish."

Dickey Porter said, "I'm really just in the initial stages of learning how to catch these walleye. I really do like to fish for them and they are a great fish to eat."

Those are the kind of reports that make Jolley proud.

"It's everything we hoped it would be and probably more," said Jolley. "We started in 2011 in hopes it would do exactly what it's doing now. They've had good success below Ft. Loudon Dam as well."

It seems the walleye are extremely mobile. Although there have been no stockings below Chickamauga Dam (Nickajack Reservoir), there have been multiple reports of walleye catches there as well. Jolley said if they can produce enough, he hopes to stock walleye there as well.

One thing every angler knows is sauger and walleye are without question, some of the best table fare possible.

Just as Tennessee is the northernmost state where Florida bass can thrive, it seems that we are also the southernmost state where walleye might thrive. Walleye and sauger actually look very similar. However one major distinguishing featuring is a distinctive white lower lobe on a walleye's tail.

Walleye are the most popular species in northern and midwest states. Where bass tournaments are all the rage in the south, in the midwest there are multiple competitive walleye fishing circuits.

The common name, "walleye", comes from the fact that the fish's eyes point outward, as if looking at the walls. Their eyes are also especially well-suited to see in the dark. The back of their eyes are lined with a light-gathering layer called the tapetum lucidum. Many land-dwelling animals such as deer, dogs and cats have it well -- the reason their eyes glow menacingly when you take a flash photo of them. But in dark conditions, or dark water in a walleye's case, it gives them a great advantage over their prey.

Jolley said he hopes there may be natural reproduction of walleye, although like sauger, it can be dependent upon water conditions that are extremely variable due to rainfall and TVA hydro-electric generation patterns.

TWRA Fisheries Chief Frank Fiss says while they are still considered "experimental," the walleye stockings will continue. He expects more stockings to occur in May.

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"Walleye are so much easier to work with in the hatcheries," said Fiss, adding that recent hatchery expansions have helped make that possible. "They're working well. I'd say we're committed to walleye as anything else."

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