It's no wonder the staff at the Charlie Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton acts like nervous parents. After all, they must make sure their young -- all 2 million of them -- grow up right.
Each spring, workers with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Craig hatchery raise walleye that are stocked into Beaver Lake, Lake Fort Smith and Lake Norfork. The popular and tasty game fish spawn naturally in the lakes, but the effort increases their numbers and creates better walleye fishing.
Walleye were native fish in the White River before the dam that created Beaver Lake was built near Eureka Springs in the 1960s. Much of their spawning habitat of gravel river shoals was lost as the 31,000-acre lake filled. Raising walleye at the hatchery makes up for some of that loss.
It all starts in late March when the hatchery crew travels to the Kings River where it joins Table Rock Lake at the Arkansas-Missouri borders. The section has a high population of walleye ready to spawn during spring. After dark, the staff collect male and female adult walleye with electrofishing. Mild electric shock temporarily stuns the walleye.
They're netted, and workers look for signs the fish are ready to spawn. Those that are get placed into tanks on trucks and transported to the hatchery.
Eggs and sperm, called milt in the fisheries world, then are milked from the adult walleye with a gentle squeeze to their midsection. Eggs, some 2 million of them, are mixed with milt and placed into clear plastic cylinders that have a constant flow of water. The adult fish are trucked back to the Kings River and released.
Heath Dake, with the hatchery crew, sometimes wakes up nights like an anxious dad worrying about those eggs.
"I keep thinking, what if a raccoon or something got into the building. There'd go all the eggs" and all the hours and effort the staff puts into the project, Dake said. Thankfully, that's never happened.
Eggs hatch in a week or so into fry, which appear tiny as pepper flakes. The fry are moved out of the building and released into a hatchery pond to grow.
The hatchery team keeps tabs on their growth in the pond. When they reach fingerling size, about 2 inches long, they're ready to be stocked into north Arkansas lakes.
Game and Fish started the effort in 2003 to return native walleye to Beaver Lake, said Jon Stein, area fisheries supervisor with Game and Fish. Beaver and Norfork lakes are stocked with 150,000 to 200,000 walleye fingerlings most years, he said. Lake Fort Smith gets about 10,000 walleye fingerlings annually. Not all survive to grow into adult walleye. A lot get eaten by other fish.
Walleye are also raised every other year at the Andrew Hulsey State Fish Hatchery in Hot Springs for stocking into central Arkansas lakes.
The effort has been successful, Stein said. Walleye today reproduce naturally on their own, migrating in spring from Beaver Lake up the White and War Eagle rivers to spawn on gravel shoals. At Beaver, walleye can grow to the legal keeping size of 18 inches in three to four years, Stein noted.
"Could be that one day we won't be raising walleye anymore," Stein said. For now, Game and Fish will continue to give their numbers a boost.
Walleye find favor with more anglers every year, said Reese Jones, an avid fishermen and a clerk at Hook, Line and Sinker fishing store in Rogers. Each day he sees walleye tackle fly off the shelves.
"People are catching on that Beaver is a darned good walleye lake," he said. "The Beaver tailwater, especially, has phenomenal walleye fishing in the spring. On top of all that, walleye are one of the tastiest fish in the lake."
Jones sees lots of anglers who specifically target walleye. Fishermen after black bass catch plenty of them by accident.
"In the summer, bass and walleye hang out in the same areas. A lot of the lures that work for bass work for walleye," he said, such as crank baits, jerk baits and plastic worms.
For live bait, nightcrawlers are the bacon of baits to a walleye. Minnows work, too.
Walleye may begin their lives at speck-sized fry, and end up as revered guests at fish fries across the land.
Catch a walleye
Walleye can be caught at all lakes in the White River chain of reservoirs, which includes Beaver, Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes, as well as Lake Norfork created by the North Fork of the White River.
At Beaver Lake, walleye must be 18 inches or longer to keep. The daily limit is four.
Be careful handling walleye. They have sharp teeth, sharp dorsal fins and sharp gill plates.
Source: Arkansas Game and Fish Commission