ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — This is a fish tale. But it sounds more like a fairytale. It involves heroes and giants and mysteries and adventures. And the thread that weaves through this story is a fish called the walleye.

Walleye are a gamefish and a member of the perch family. They are really popular in the Great Lakes region, the Midwest, and Canada. A lot of folks don’t realize we have them here in Virginia.

In fact, the walleye we have here are pretty special.

They’re natives of the new river. That New River strain of fish is so unique that you can’t find them anywhere else on the planet.

Now, here’s where the mystery comes in. We didn’t know we were dealing with something that special until relatively recently.

“Well the new river apparently had a unique strain historically that went undiscovered until some research was done on Claytor Lake in the late 70s through Virginia Tech,” said Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources biologist John Copeland.

Copeland is one of the heroes of this fish tale. Without folks like him, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Copeland is one of the people entrusted with making sure our unique strain of walleye thrives.

“Since 2000 we’ve worked with that strain of walleye through a selective breeding program where we go and collect brood stock in the spring and raise young from this unique strain,” said Copeland.
“When we have unique genetics like that, we want to maintain those for the future.”

And then there’s Wes Billings. Billings is a VDWR Conservation Officer. He grew up fishing the New River and its walleye are his passion.

“We’ve been actively collecting brood stock during the spring here on the New River; doing some gentic testing to make sure they are the native strain of walleye; taking them and raising fry and bringing them back and stocking them.”

The New River is already a pretty unique place. According to geologists, it’s the second oldest river in the world. It was cutting its way west through the Appalachian Mountains, when the Appalachians were the size of the Rockies.

And, speaking of size, when it comes to the New River strain of Walleye, that’s one of the things that sets them apart from other walleye anywhere else in the world. They get big. They’re bruisers. The two biggest walleye ever caught in Virginia were caught in the New River.

“This particular strain of walleye produces a lot of big fish,” Copeland told WFXR News. “The current state record is over 15 pounds (Caught by Tony Duncan in December of 2000) and came from the New, the historic record of 22 and a half pounds (Caught by Roy Barrett in August of 1973) came from the New River. The New River sets records of walleye sizes and we know that’s a unique characteristic of that strain of walleye.”

Tony Duncan 15 lbs, 15 ozs Virginia RecordWalleye/Courtesy VDWR
Roy Barrett 22 lbs, 8 ozs Virginia Historical Record Walleye

Some walleye experts, we’re talking about professional walleye anglers and biologists, think the New River, because of those unique genetics and Virginia’s favorable climate, could one day produce a new world record. That would be a walleye in excess of 25 pounds.

The organizers of some tournaments on the professional walleye circuit, which operates primarily on the Great Lakes and in the midwest, have expressed an interest in some day holding one of their tournaments on Claytor Lake because of its big fish potential. If that happens, it could attract millions of dollars in tourist spending.

While that would be great news, the way this fish tale really has a happy ending, would be for the New River strain, Virginia’s native walleye, to multiply and thrive into the future.

The VDWR says one way to do that is with a new year round slot restriction on walleye harvested from the New River. Anglers may keep up to two walleye from the New River, but no fish between 19 and 28 inches in length may be kept.

That applies to walleye caught from Buck Dam downstream to the Claytor Lake Dam. The fish in that slot are prime breeders, and the restriction will mean those fish will be able to spawn for years to come.

Virginia Tech researcher Caitlin Carey harvests eggs from a New River strain walleye
Conservation Officer Wes Billings holds a New River strain walleye during brood stock collection

“We feel like that protects our brood stock to have a better natural reproduction,” says Billings.

Developing a natural, self-sustaining resource is what biologist John Copeland is committed to.

“That’s an important part of the work that I do is to maintain and conserve populations of fish that are unique to Virginia and specifically the New River where I do my work.”