Garden State Walleye
The popularity of Walleye (Sander vitreus) fishing has grown throughout the United States over the last twenty years, and New Jersey is no exception.
The largest member of the Perch family, Walleye offer great sport and are often kept for consumption. The continued success of New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Walleye Program has provided tremendous opportunities for local anglers and is a vital component of fishing in the Garden State.
Native to drainages east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachians, Walleye are not indigenous to New Jersey. However, Fish and Wildlife’s sustained stocking effort has produced excellent fisheries in selected, suitable waters. The relatively small size and depth of most New Jersey lakes and reservoirs results in warmer water, limiting waterbodies suitable for stocking.
Five impoundments (Canistear Reservoir, Greenwood Lake, Lake Hopatcong, Monksville Reservoir and Swartswood Lake) are currently Walleye-stocked and have become attractive fisheries.
The Delaware River also supports a popular Walleye fishery. Incidental Walleye are occasionally caught elsewhere. These fish are a consequence of escapement and anglers illegally moving the fish from one waterbody to another.
Walleye are considered a coolwater fish species with an optimal water temperature of 69–75°F — significantly warmer than trout but cooler than warmwater fish like Largemouth Bass. Walleye tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions but are generally most abundant in moderate to large lakes or rivers characterized by cool temperatures, shallow to moderate depths, clean, rocky substrate with moderate turbidity and nutrient conditions. Mark-and-recapture studies conducted on Walleye in Swartswood Lake, Monksville Reservoir and the Delaware River to assess the potential for natural reproduction have shown limited success. Variable reproductive success is a chronic problem with Walleye, even in optimal habitat. Routine stocking is necessary to sustain fisheries due to habitat, spawning and recruitment limitations.
Mature Walleye congregate and perform spawning behavior, even though their efforts do not result in viable young. In New Jersey, Walleye spawning behavior can occur anywhere between late February to mid-April, with peak spawn observed when water temperatures are 43–54°F. Moving water is necessary to clear away fine sediment, cleanse and aerate eggs. No parental care is given to the eggs.
In June and July, Walleye can be found among inshore habitat with fine substrate, but by late summer they will move to deeper areas over rocky habitats, on the outside edge of weed beds, near points with drop offs or over open-bottomed flats.
Yellow Perch are a major prey item of Walleye and when young-of-the-year are abundant, Walleye will feed on them exclusively. However, Walleye are opportunistic and will feed on the young of many panfish, game species and minnows. Walleye grow faster, and have higher relative weights, in lakes with an Alewife population. All waterbodies currently stocked with Walleye in New Jersey have abundant Alewife and Yellow Perch populations.
Walleye stocking began by private fishing clubs in several New Jersey lakes in the early 1900’s with Greenwood Lake and Lake Hopatcong producing the most prominent fisheries. Fish and Wildlife’s modern-day propagation of Walleye began in 1989, with 2.2 million eggs shipped from New York and Ontario. Next, 1.2 million fry were stocked in the then-new Monksville Reservoir. The remainder were set up in hatchery ponds and grown to 2 inches, with 55,000 fingerlings stocked in Monksville Reservoir.
Eggs were obtained from the PA Fish and Boat Commission until 1992. In 1993, Fish and Wildlife collected Walleye broodstock from Monksville Reservoir which were brought back to the Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery and spawned. From 1995-2000, broodstock were taken from Monksville Reservoir and supplemented with eggs from the PA Fish and Boat Commission, if needed.
The 1999 construction of a new intensive fish culture facility at the Hackettstown Hatchery set the stage for developing a consistent rearing program. From 2000 to 2019, all Walleye broodstock came from Swartswood Lake. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, eggs have been procured from Pennsylvania.
Walleye broodstock collection begins annually around April 1 when fish travel to their spawning grounds. New Jersey’s primary broodstock source is Swartswood Lake in Sussex County. Hatchery staff set a trap net near the mouth of Neldon Brook, checking it daily until the target number of 50 gravid (egg-bearing) females is reached, representing five million eggs. Mature Walleye are transported back to the hatchery, held in 2,000-gallon tanks at 52°F and checked daily for ripeness.
The process starts with a dozen ripe females and approximately three times as many males. The fish are rinsed in clean water, then the eggs and milt are manually stripped into a bowl. Using a goose feather, eggs are gently stirred for two minutes; a cup of water is added to initiate fertilization.
Hatching begins on day 15. The sac fry swim up and out of the jar and are captured in a 250-gallon trough below. The tiny fry suspend and congregate under the lights. Screens must be covered with nylon leggings to prevent escapement. After two days, most fry have hatched.
One-half million fry are moved to a 4-acre hatchery pond that was previously fertilized to create phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms on which the fry will feed. Water chemistry is monitored daily to alert hatchery staff as to when fertilizer should be applied or if water flow needs to be adjusted. After 40 days, hatchery staff samples the pond with a 40-foot seine to confirm that the Walleye have grown to 1.5-inch fingerlings. The pond and fingerlings are monitored closely until healthy, 1.8–2.0-inch pond fingerlings are achieved.
Around day 50, 100,000 Walleye fingerlings are stocked into five inland waters: Canistear Reservoir, Greenwood Lake, Lake Hopatcong, Monksville Reservoir and Swartswood Lake, with surplus fish stocked in the Delaware River. Additional 2-inch Walleye are retained in three, 1-acre growout ponds with 17,500 fish per pond.
Hatchery staff will stock these ponds with approximately 1,800 pounds — or 3.6 million —minnow fry to feed the Walleye until they become 4-inch advanced fingerlings. It is estimated to take three pounds of forage to produce one pound of Walleye. The number of Walleye available for stocking varies from year to year due to fluctuating survival rates in hatchery ponds, with a good return rate of 65%. The annual target for Walleye is 24,000.
Since Fish and Wildlife’s Walleye Program began, the hatchery has stocked over 10 million 2-inch pond fingerlings and 1 million 4-inch advanced fingerlings. Hatchery staff have handled 23 females during trap netting that tipped the scales over 10 pounds. The largest in 2004 weighed 13.6 pounds, equaling the current state record catch. The average Walleye size has increased over the years from 18 inches/2.39 pounds in 2000 to 20.3 inches/4.1 pounds recently. Females went from 19.3 inches/3.03 pounds in 2000 to 22.9 inches/6.2 pounds in 2019. Measurements were taken during spawning when fish are their heaviest.
New Jersey’s established Walleye lakes and reservoirs are limited by habitat, dictated by geology and topography. High-quality, Walleye-supporting waterbodies are geographically limited to the northern area of the state. Central and southern waterbodies are typically smaller, shallower and warmer, making them less suitable for Walleye. Our fisheries biologists are currently exploring additional waterbodies for potential future stocking. Those at the top of the list include Splitrock Reservoir (Morris) and Manasquan Reservoir (Monmouth).
New Jersey’s annual Walleye stocking rate is 20 fish/acre at a ratio of 80% pond fingerlings (2 inches) and 20% advanced fingerlings (4 inches). Stocking rates utilized by other states vary, dependent on fingerling size, individual lake management plans, habitat considerations, prey availability and past stocking success. In New Jersey, stocking rates may be altered if negative findings are documented such as poor growth or condition, adverse effects to other competing species or other undesirable impacts. Reduced stocking rates may also be implemented when new waters are added to the program.
A thorough assessment of New Jersey’s stocking program was conducted from 2014 to 2017. To assess these populations, fisheries biologists utilized night electrofishing, along with trap netting on some waterbodies. Results from these spring assessments indicate abundant Walleye populations in all waterbodies sampled, with the highest abundance in Canistear Reservoir. For more detailed information on the most recent assessments of New Jersey’s Walleye lakes and reservoirs, please refer to the 2018 report Assessment and Management of New Jersey’s Stocked Coolwater Fishes.
Angler sentiment for Walleye is high. Fish and Wildlife’s 2015 Warmwater/Coolwater Angler Survey revealed that among respondents, 28.2% of New Jersey anglers target Walleye; 70.3% fish for them only in New Jersey. The Walleye population in the Delaware River is considered strong based on angler catch rates, but that fishery has not been fully evaluated. Survey respondents demonstrated that the Delaware River was targeted the most and had the highest level of satisfaction among anglers.
The statewide regulation allows for three Walleye with a minimum length of 18 inches. In 1996, a catch and release season (March 1 to April 30) was established on all waterbodies except the Delaware River.
Although Walleye populations are not supported through natural reproduction, Walleye are afforded similar protections from harvest during their spawning period due to the species’ tendency to congregate then in large numbers in shallow river areas. These protections prevent species exploitation such as overharvest or unsportsmanlike take. Recently, consideration is being given to the removal of the catch and release season on certain waterbodies based on reports and studies conducted in other states documenting that exploitation of Walleye is not the major driver of Walleye abundance or population size structure.
Walleye fishing in New Jersey is excellent throughout the entire year. Walleye are light-sensitive, so anglers will find the greatest activity during low light conditions — overcast days, dawn, dusk and at night. Lakes and rivers with high turbidity can provide excellent daytime opportunities.
In the spring, lake-dwelling Walleye move from deep wintering areas into the shallows to spawn. They can be found at moderate depths (15–30 feet) during the summer months but may move shallower during low light conditions. In the early fall, when water temperatures begin to drop, Walleye will move into the shallows to feed. As fall temperatures continue to decline, Walleye return to deeper areas for the winter.
Live bait and artificial lures are equally productive in both lakes and rivers. Live minnows, herring and nightcrawlers fished on 1/8- to 3/8-oz. jigs retrieved or drifted along the bottom are very effective. Artificial baits, including crankbaits, jerkbaits and jigs, are excellent choices for both lakes and rivers.