A recent press release from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission makes anglers in our state aware of some prime fishing spots for the fabled walleye. Several reservoirs in the western part of North Carolina are mentioned in the release as being “the” places to go try your luck for these “cool” water fish. What many fishermen don’t realize is that the walleye is a native fish in some of our coastal streams and was once so abundant in the east that there was an active commercial fishery for the walleye here.
The Wildlife Commission states that, “Although most people think of trout fishing when visiting the mountains, fishing for walleye also can offer exciting fishing action as well as excellent table fare.
“Walleye, also known as pike and jackfish, thrive in cooler waters. While most of North Carolina’s mountain reservoirs have walleye populations, the best walleye fishing can be found in Fontana and Hiwassee reservoirs and in Lake James, according to David Yow, the Wildlife Commission’s warmwater research coordinator and an expert on walleye fisheries.
“Fontana Reservoir, located on the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, is a large, deep reservoir that provides plenty of forage and habitat for its walleye population. Further west, Hiwassee Reservoir near Murphy has a walleye fishery that has rebounded due to annual walleye fingerling stockings. On the eastern side of the mountains, Lake James provides a walleye-fishing experience within easy driving distance for anglers in the central part of the state.
“Regardless of where anglers fish for walleye, Yow advises them to bring a good depth finder, because walleye tend to avoid sunlight and often are found in deep water associated with baitfish or structure.
“A good depth finder is essential for determining trolling depth or locating schools for still fishing,” Yow said. “Walleye schools may be as deep as 90 feet or more this time of year. That also affects the way you handle your catch.”
“Bringing a fish up from that depth may affect its ability to survive if released, and some studies have indicated that the deeper a fish is caught, the less likely it is to survive.
“For that reason we have no length limits for walleye in our mountain reservoirs,” Yow said. “The only exception is Lake James, which has a 15-inch minimum.”
“Popular walleye baits include spoons, jigs and plastic worms. One technique that works well is to cast the jig parallel to the boat and let it sink. Start a hopping motion using only the wrist, not the arm. Make the jig hop six to 12 inches from the bottom while retrieving the jig between hops. Slack the line after each hop.
“Safety is a key concern when fishing mountain reservoirs in winter and Yow recommends that anglers have a float plan so that someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to return.
“Because water levels are lower, shallow points and submerged ridges present more navigational hazards in winter than in warmer months when the reservoirs are full,” Yow said. “There are also fewer boaters on the water to help if you get into trouble, and there is no cell phone service in some of the more remote areas.”
“While walleye is considered by many to be one of the best tasting of all freshwater fish, anglers should note that there is a consumption advisory for walleye due to mercury levels in Fontana and Santeetlah reservoirs. Consumption advisories are issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains an updated list on its website.”
While the NCWRC is pushing the winter trout fishery for rainbow, brook and brown trout as well as the walleye in the western part of North Carolina, there remains a very few fishermen that try the walleye fishing on Eastern North Carolina’s Roanoke River below the dam at Roanoke Rapids Lake.
While casting for striped bass on the Roanoke River several years ago I saw another fisherman who was casting from the bank land a fish that looked like a walleye. I yelled over to him and asked him what kind of fish he just caught and he replied “A walleye.” I’d never heard of walleye being on the lower reaches of the Roanoke and really doubted what the fisherman had told me. Noting my look of disbelief he reached for his stringer hanging from a limb and pulled up a stringer that held 6 or 7 more of this mystery fish.
When I stopped by Bobby Colston’s Tackle Box later that day and asked Bobby Colston if he’d ever heard of fishermen catching walleye in North Carolina’s Roanoke River he replied that a few fisherman usually take a few every spring by casting live minnows into the deeper pools below the Roanoke Rapids Dam.
I figured that surely these Roanoke River walleyes must have traveled downstream from the upper reaches of the Roanoke River in the mountains of Virginia where they were native so I decided to contact the experts at the Wildlife Commission for clarification about the mystery fish of the Roanoke River. When I called the NCWRC’s Director of Inland Fisheries, Fred Harris, he told me that the walleye are indeed native to the Roanoke River and that they once were abundant throughout the entire Albemarle Sound area. In fact, he replied, there was even a commercial fishery for the walleye and that the older anglers and commercial fishermen called them “brook trout.”
If you’re ever fishing on the Roanoke River below the dam at the Roanoke Rapids Lake and hear some Old Timer talk about catching brook trout in the Roanoke River, don’t laugh. He might know what he’s talking about.
For more information on fishing in public, inland waters, including a list of more than 500 sites across the state where the public can cast a line, visit www.ncwildlife.org/fishing.