By Dan Johnson

Efforts to restore populations of fast-growing native walleyes could some day fuel record-class catches of behemoths topping the 20-pound mark.

That’s the word from biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, who are working hard to re-establish southern strain ’eyes in a number of Bluegrass fisheries.

The state was once home to a river-dwelling breed of walleye that tends to grow larger and faster than its northern strain counterparts.

Before populations collapsed due to factors including poor water quality, over-fishing and habitat loss, the southern strain produced some impressive fish.

Kentucky’s current state record walleye is a 21-pound, 8-ounce giant caught in Lake Cumberland in 1958. And the 25-pound IGFA world record came from Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake in 1960. Such supersize walleyes are widely believed to be from the southern strain.

Once native walleye stocks crashed, biologists began stocking northern fish better suited to still-water impoundments. However, the discovery of a remnant population of native fish in 1995 triggered a restoration effort that continues to this day.

Just last month, 25,000 native southern-strain fish were stocked in the Kentucky River, marking their return to the waterway after a decades-long absence. The 2- to 3-inch-long fish were released in the three forks of the river above Lock and Dam 14 near Beattyville.

Since the project began in 2002, southern walleyes have been stocked in the Rockcastle River, Wood Creek Lake, Barren River, Levisa Fork, the Cumberland River above Cumberland Falls, Martins Fork Lake and Drakes Creek.

“We think water conditions have improved to the point where native walleyes can make a comeback,” said Dave Dreves, assistant director of fisheries research. He said the state is already getting brood fish weighing 8 pounds out of the Barren River, and believes, “It’s entirely possible that one day anglers might be catching a state record walleye.”

While these Kentucky fisheries might lie a long cast from Lindy Land, the state’s restoration efforts are definitely admirable — and who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to make a road trip for a shot at a 20-pound, marble-eyed monster?