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Walleye

Fishing Regulations Indiana Freshwater Fishing

SIZE WISE

DNR keeps fine tuning stocking program

As far as fish popularity goes, walleye rate pretty high on the list for many Indiana anglers.

A DNR survey found that walleye rank No. 4 overall but jump to the top of the list as a species anglers prefer to see stocked in Indiana waters.

“There’s a lot of demand,” said Brian Schoenung, chief of fisheries for the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. “In fact, the demand is more than our current hatchery facilities can meet, so we see lake associations funding their own walleye stockings.”

That explains the DNR’s efforts to continually tweak its walleye program in order to find which stocking and harvest regulation approach is best for targeted lakes. What’s effective in a northern Indiana lake may not be appropriate in southern Indiana.

“Where we’re at right now probably is the mature phase of the program,” Schoenung said. “We’ve identified most of the lakes in the state suitable for walleye stocking and where we’re going to have success. In a lot of those places, we’re refining the number and size of fish we stock.”

Stocking of hatchery-raised walleye in Indiana dates back to the early 1900s when the state bought eggs from federal sources, fertilized them and reared them to fry stage, about a quarter-inch long. Initial stockings were in the millions but proved marginally successful, prompting a switch to fingerling-sized fish, about 1-2 inches long. The results weren’t much better, so the state dropped the walleye program in the 1940s.

The program was resurrected in the 1970s after hatchery capacity was expanded and several large flood-control reservoirs were constructed. One of the reservoirs, Brookville, eventually became the in-state brood source for walleye production. Each spring, DNR fisheries biologists collect about 30 million walleye eggs at Brookville and use state fish hatcheries to raise them for release into about a dozen natural lakes, 10 reservoirs, and a couple rivers.

Fry and fingerlings still comprise most of the annual stocking, but the state began to experiment in 2001 with fall releases of advanced fingerlings. Their size – 6 to 8 inches – made them less susceptible to predation and more likely to survive.

“Over the years, we’ve seen the number of successful lakes stocked with 1-2 inch fingerlings significantly decline,” said Neil Ledet, who recently retired after 40 years as a DNR fisheries biologist. “Whether the decline is a result of a change in water quality or the fact the number of largemouth bass has doubled in the natural lakes, we had to make adjustments to continue the program. Having to go to larger advanced fingerlings is more expensive, but it’s either that or not have a program in most of northern Indiana.”

The practice appears to be paying off.

“Most of the lakes where we stocked larger fingerlings, Sylvan, Winona, Clear, and Crooked Lake in Steuben for example, are far better than they ever were,” Ledet said. “Twenty, 30 years ago there were two or three good natural lakes to choose from. Now it’s amazing that we have the choices we do.

And new places are being added. Shriner Lake in Whitley County received 1,200 advanced fingerlings last fall as the DNR tries to establish walleye in another northern Indiana lake. Shriner, a 120-acre lake, became a candidate because it has ample walleye habitat, plenty of forage, and because of successful advanced fingerling stockings at Sylvan Lake in nearby Noble County.

“We have developed a very dense walleye population at Sylvan Lake and think we can scale back the stocking there without affecting the quality of walleye fishing,” said Jed Pearson, DNR fisheries biologist. “Doing so frees up some fingerlings that we can stock in other lakes.”

Whatever the stocking option is for a given location, angler participation and catch rates are additional considerations.

“In the end, it’s not successful if it’s not being used by anglers,” Schoenung said.

“There’s a lot to that,” said fisheries biologist Dave Kittaka, whose responsibilities include the walleye fishery at Lake Monroe, Indiana’s largest lake. “The success of the program is based on how many anglers target walleye and how many harvest or catch them. It’s a difficult standard to set (at Monroe) compared to other parts of the state. It’s the biggest lake. It has the habitat and it has the food.”

Kittaka said that allows walleye to reach legal size (14 inches for southern Indiana lakes) within two years … or less.

“We found walleye stocked (in the spring) that were up to 11 inches by October,” he said. “It’s possible they will reach 14 inches or legal size by the following year. Patoka Lake’s walleye are showing similar results. All of our southern Indiana walleye lakes have good water quality, tons of forage and accessibility.

What’s missing at Monroe is pursuit of walleye by anglers, who in past DNR surveys have shown preference to largemouth bass, crappie, and other species compared to angler activity for walleye at northern Indiana lakes. Part of the reason might be a lack of familiarity with successful walleye fishing techniques.

“Walleye are just different, and people need to figure out how to catch them,” Kittaka said.

For those who want to try, the rewards are waiting.

“When we do our fish surveys and evaluations at Monroe, we’ve got walleye up to 9, 10 years old, so we’re establishing a population that continues to grow and get old,” Kittaka said. “The potential of catching a 24-inch plus fish if you know what you’re doing is probably pretty good. Those fish are out there.”

DNR fisheries biologist Dave Kittaka gathers walleye samples at night at Lake Monroe as part of an ongoing research project. Kittaka considers Monroe an untapped opportunity for anglers to catch the prize game fish.