Gulf Coast walleye: A struggling southern strain of the North’s favorite fish

By on March 20, 2015
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is working to reverse the decline of Gulf Coast walleye. (Courtesy MDWFP)

Gulf Coast walleye might sound as likely as Lake Erie marlin to northern anglers. But this southern strain of the North’s favorite fish is real, if not particularly well-off.

People in traditional walleye states can be excused for not knowing about the native southern strain. Anglers around Mississippi and Alabama aren’t all that familiar with them either.

“There are a lot of people that don’t know they exist,” said Tyler Stubbs, a fisheries biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “We have some people that catch them and didn’t know what it was, so they assumed they couldn’t keep it and throw it back.”

That wasn’t always the case. The Gulf Coast strain walleye were once more widespread in the Mobile River basin, enough so that they supported a recreational fishery, according to Hal Schramm, fisheries professor with Mississippi State university’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture. According to anecdotes he’s heard, “the fish were a seasonal, cultural thing. They would fish them during the spawning run,” Schramm said. “Walleye migrate at night, and anglers would build campfires and have fishing parties.”

But the numbers have dwindled, and it’s not clear why. It may have something to do with the construction of the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile lock-and-dam navigational route completed in 1984. Stubbs said that led to some head cutting and increased siltation in tributaries of the Tombigbee River, which flows through northeastern Mississippi before crossing into Alabama and joining the Mobile River.

The state has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery to do some habitat improvement. They’d like to do more, but planning the work is tricky because it’s not all that clear what habitat types the southern strain needs.

“They seem to act a little different than the northern strain,” Stubbs said. “They’re a little more quirky.”

For example, they did some work implanting walleye in the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, including one channelized creek, with tracking tags to follow their movements and see where they were trying to spawn.

“We thought they’d really be looking for some of these nice riffle areas,” he said.
“They pretty much stayed in that channelized ditch for most of the year without really making a run anywhere.”

What little research that has been conducted on the Gulf Coast walleye population suggests that natural reproduction is rarely successful. Until that changes, the strain will rely on the state’s stocking program to keep swimming in its native range. The state has stocked juvenille walleye into the Buttahatchie River for the past two years, and now biologists are searching the river too see how many have survived and are growing into adults.

What makes these fish better adapted to the southern climate than their northern brethren is another mystery. While the Gulf Coast strain known to be genetically distinct from other walleye, it’s not clear how that plays out, Schramm said. It seems likely to have some effect on their temperature tolerance, but that’s just a guess.

“Genetic differences get manifested in everything from hair color to eye color to which way your toes point,” Schramm said. “Exactly what makes them better suited for that environment is unknown.”

Top image: The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is working to reverse the decline of Gulf Coast walleye. (Courtesy MDWFP)

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