Although a fish most anglers associate with northern lakes and rivers, a unique strain of walleye - the Gulf coast or southern strain - is native to the Tombigbee River drainage in Mississippi and the Coosa River drainage in Alabama. The fish look like their kin from northern waters and are distinguishable only by genetic analysis.
Little is known about the Gulf walleye. Adult fish ascend streams seeking spawning sites when water temperature is 46 to 60 degrees. Based on behavior of northern walleye, spawning is presumed to occur on gravel bars, and individual fish return to the same spawning site every spring.
Fertilized eggs stick to the gravel and are not guarded by the parents; current flowing over the eggs provides the fresh water and oxygen needed by the developing embryos.
The eggs hatch in 14 to 21 days, depending on the water temperature, and the tiny, quarter-inch-long larvae drift with the current. Those that find suitable backwaters and zooplankton food resources have a chance to survive.
The young walleye grow to 12 inches in two years, and reach sexual maturity at age 3 or 4.
Although limited catch records suggest the Gulf walleye do not get as large as those from northern waters, they do grow to at least 6 pounds.
The walleye campfires don't burn anymore. The Gulf walleye was never abundant, but the population declined after the construction of the Tenn-Tom Waterway in the late '70s and early '80s. Although several streams, like the Buttahatchie and Luxapallila, were left unaltered with the intent of providing habitat for this unique sport fish, extensive research by Mississippi State University fisheries scientists caught few adult walleye and only a single wild-spawned larva.
Gulf walleye appear to have suffered a similar fate in the now-impounded Coosa River in Alabama.
The reasons for the decline are not apparent. Suitable habitat remains in the little-altered upper Tombigbee River (the segment upstream of the Tenn-Tom Waterway) and other tributaries to the waterway.
However, information from northern waters, where walleye is the premier sport fish and extensively studied, may offer at least one clue. Walleye populations, whether sustained by natural reproduction or stocking, struggle in waters with abundant largemouth bass. Development of the waterway converted a flowing river with few largemouth bass into a series of impoundments where largemouth bass now thrive.
The MDWFP North Mississippi Fish Hatchery (NMFH) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery have joined forces and ramped up efforts to restore this Mississippi native.
Sexually mature walleye are captured with gill nets in March and spawned at NMFH. After the eggs hatch, the fry are transferred to rearing ponds at Private John Allen.
The young fish are stocked into streams and reservoirs in May.
Production has steadily increased from 9,000 fish in 2008, the first year of this program. Last year, NMFH produced 180,000 fry. NMFH manager Justin Wilkens confided that many questions about Gulf walleye production remain, but it is clear that he and his staff have solved many of the spawning and rearing problems.
One significant advance to the walleye restoration program is the establishment of a walleye population at Davis Lake in the Tombigbee National Forest. Walleye fry stocked in Davis Lake in 2003 survived and grew well. Harvest of walleye is not allowed in Davis Lake.
Pre-spawn walleye are easily and consistently captured by gill nets from Davis Lake, so the hatchery now has a reliable supply of healthy spawners needed to produce each years' crop of fry.
Based on the success at Davis Lake, fry also have been stocked into Oktibbeha County Lake and Tombigbee State Park Lake with the purpose of establishing sport fisheries and additional sources of brood fish.
Another significant advance in the walleye stocking program is intensive stocking of one or two sites each year rather than spreading the fish among numerous lakes and streams. In 2011, and estimated 180,000 fry were stocked into the Tombigbee River above Walker's Bridge.
Fry produced this year will be stocked into Buttahatchie Creek.
This targeted approach facilitates evaluation of stocking success, an essential component to any stocking program. All stocked fish are marked with oxytetracycline, a chemical added to the water that is incorporated into bones, including the otoliths (ear bones) used for aging the fish. The chemical appears as a fluorescent yellow band when the otolith is illuminated with ultraviolet light and examined under a microscope.
Sampling with small-mesh gill nets in the Tombigbee River in the autumn of 2011 captured 8-inch walleye. Otoliths from these fish have yet to be checked for marks, but it is likely that these are fish stocked the prior year.
While the hatcheries are doing their part to bring back walleye fisheries in Mississippi, MDWFP fishery management biologist Tyler Stubbs and Private John Allen hatchery manager Ricky Campbell and his staff are working outside the hatchery to learn valuable information that will advance the success of this program.
For example, adult walleye captured in the Tombigbee River in 2010 and 2011 were radio tagged to monitor their movement. Information to date indicates the fish remain above Walker's Bridge rather than journeying into the waterway.
Anglers can help by reporting the location and date of walleye catches to NMFH (662-563-0542).
The walleye campfires may again burn on the streams in Northeast Mississippi.