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Fisheries officials want to correct 50-year-old goof

West Virginia fisheries officials want to correct a goof committed nearly half a century ago.

They want to replace the Lake Erie-strain walleyes stocked in Summersville Lake during the 1960s with a strain native to the Mountain State.

"We think there's potential to grow larger fish if we switch to the Eastern Highlands strain," said Dave Wellman, a Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Summersville Lake in 1966 shortly after contractors finished construction of the 390-foot-high Summersville Dam. Fisheries officials knew the lake's deep, cool, rocky waters would make good walleye habitat, so they imported thousands of Great Lakes-strain walleye fry from New York and Pennsylvania and stocked them into the 2,700-acre impoundment.

They did well. Within three years, the stocked walleyes established a reproducing, self-sustaining population.

"Summersville is one of only two naturally reproducing walleye fisheries found in West Virginia impoundments," Wellman said.

For about 40 years, a small but dedicated band of anglers enjoyed Summersville's annual walleye spawning run. In the mid 2000s, however, anglers began to complain that they weren't catching as many walleyes as usual, and that the ones they did manage to catch were significantly smaller.

DNR officials commissioned a creel survey to see what was going on. The survey revealed that 90 percent of the walleyes being caught were 14 inches or smaller, and were relatively skinny.

Those findings spurred biologists to do some sampling of their own. They netted some walleyes, weighed them, measured them, determined their ages and analyzed their DNA.

"We found that Summersville's walleyes had a lower growth rate than walleyes in other lakes," Wellman said. "We also found that Summersville's fish stopped getting larger with age."

The two largest fish turned out to have different DNA profiles.

"They weren't Lake Erie-strain fish at all," Wellman said. "They were from the [native] Eastern Highlands strain."

The Eastern Highlands strain was discovered in the early 2000s by researchers at Virginia Tech. Biologists believe the strain, native to the New, Gauley, Elk and Cumberland rivers, is better suited than Lake Erie fish to thrive in the area's relatively infertile waters.

Since the discovery, DNR officials have been capturing Eastern Highlands walleyes, spawning them, raising their offspring and stocking them in selected Mountain State rivers.

The native-strain walleyes grow more quickly than their Lake Erie counterparts. Native-strain females stocked into the New River often exceed 18 inches after just three years. Wellman believes the natives' rapid growth rate would quickly boost Summersville walleyes' average size.

"The hope is that the Eastern Highlands strain will eventually become the dominant strain in the lake," he said.

The DNR's Chris O'Bara said the current plan is to begin the stockings in 2013 if enough young walleyes are available from the state's two warm-water hatcheries.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

 


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