Thursday, May 22, 2014


To meet a growing interest, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials are set to stock the Rivanna River with southern strain walleye this spring.

    Walleye, a family member of the northern pike, pickerel, musky, and yellow perch, are naturally northern fish, native to Canada and the northern United States.  Their name is a result of their outward-facing eyes glazed with a reflective pigment that allows them to see well at night or in stained water.  Like its relatives, the walleye has a jaw full of sharp teeth used to pin baitfish.  In the north, walleye enjoy a strong, dedicated following, many of whom value the fish as excellent table fare, similar to pickerel (another tasty treat).

    In Virginia, walleye are native only to the New River and its tributaries; and Virginians wishing to pursue the feisty, cold-water creature have to take their efforts to the western part of the state to do so, for the most part.

    In the 80s and 90s, the DGIF experimentally stocked walleye in just about every body of water they managed.  But by spreading their stocks so thin, and doing so only one year, nothing much arose from it.  Still, certain fisheries (Lake Anna being one) still boast a miniscule population of the wall-eyed fish, but nothing much for fishermen to take advantage of.

    But with more determination and a more narrowed focus, DGIF biologists are now setting their sights on Central Virginia.  “We’ve been talking about stocking walleye in area rivers for a couple years, now,” said Johnathan Harris, District Fisheries Biologist overseeing the Rivanna River drainage.  “The main purpose of the program is to create a new recreational fishery and possibly even create brood stock for future stockings in the eastern part of the state.  We’re also looking at stocking in the Shenandoah River.”

    If Harris can get his hands on the full number of fingerlings requested from hatcheries in the western part of the state, they will stock 30,000 fingerlings at four points along the River’s course between the Rivanna Reservoir dam in Charlottesville and the town of Palmyra on the River’s lower stretches.

    A catchable population of fish is the desired outcome of the project; but as walleye have never been monitored or seriously supported in the Rivanna River, Harris notes, it’s hard to predict the outcome.  “We plan to stock on a five year program.  If it’s doing well we’ll continue the process.  Walleye do not reproduce naturally with the added fishing pressure, even in the New River where they are native, so annual stockings will keep populations strong,” said Harris.

    If the program is indeed a success, typical growth rates will have fish measuring up to the recently-implemented statewide slot limit of 18 inches in three to five years.

    The Rivanna River has been known foremost as a smallmouth bass fishery since the fish’s accidental diffusion east of the Ohio River in the mid-1800s, and gives up trophy-sized fish every year, especially in its lower reaches.  But the addition of another predatory fish is not expected to be too big of an issue.  “There will be a bit of a squeeze,” Harris projects.  “Both are predatory fish, and will have to compete a little for food.”  However, Harris notes that they will not be stocking in large densities (roughly 1,000 fingerlings per river mile); and critical competition and any consequences are not likely.

    What is likely in the success of this project is the addition of a relative novelty to the Rivanna.  “Walleye, especially in the New River, are very river-running fish,” Harris reported.  “In the summer and winter, they hang out in deeper water areas, but starting in February, they will begin running up river until they hit nice rocky shoals where they can spawn.”  While Rivanna’s shad runs aren’t what they used to be, this project’s success could grant the Rivanna River a new claim to fame.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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