ELKHART — Below the surface of the Elkhart River, wildlife bustles and plants thrive, but one native freshwater fish has declined in population. That will change later this year.
Thousands of walleye will be released into the river this fall by the Elkhart River Restoration Association in partnership with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The fish, which are about 6 to 8 inches in length, will come from a hatchery in Wisconsin, where they were raised and tested for viruses.
“The Elkhart River has a vibrant ecology, nice habitats for aquatic life and now it has the ability to support walleye,” said Daragh Deegan, an aquatic biologist on the ERRA’s board. “Some people have misconceptions, but it’s fairly safe to eat the fish that come from the river. Walleye is a pretty tasty fish, and I hope more people will fish in the Elkhart River after we stock it.”
Walleye are native to the river, but their population has dwindled over the years because of the construction of dams and pollution problems from decades ago that have since been resolved, Deegan said. Walleye have been scarce in the Elkhart River, Deegan explained, noting that a fish sampling in 2009 located about five walleye in the Goshen area.
“The rivers were in a lot worse shape than they are now, so it’s probably a combination of the habitat changing with the dams and some pollution issues we’ve had in the past probably helped wipe out the population,” Deegan said.
About 2,300 fish will be released into the Elkhart River between Elkhart and Goshen, and another 1,100 will be let loose into the water near the dam at Goshen Pond, covering about 20 miles of river.
Neil Ledet, DNR district fisheries biologist in northeast Indiana, said about a dozen organizations stock fish in Indiana’s waterways.
“Most of what they stock don’t reproduce well, and it adds a little diversity in the fisheries,” he said.
The Michiana Walleye Association began stocking the St. Joseph River in 1993 with fingerling walleyes, which range in size from 1 to 3 inches. Just a few years later, the group partnered with the DNR to replenish the population with larger walleye, like the fish the ERRA will stock this fall.
“The larger fish are more expensive, but the survival rate is much better,” said Rick Nichols, Michiana Walleye Association president. “They stand a better chance of living, and that’s what matters.”
The ERRA has enough money to stock the Elkhart River this year and hopes to follow up every other year to restock the fish like the Michiana Walleye Association does at the St. Joseph River. The group spends about $2 on each fish and is accepting donations for the project on its website at www.elkhartriverrestorationassociation.org.
Fish stocking isn’t the only project on the ERRA’s plate. The group built a game fish habitat at Goshen Pond in May with the help of about 30 volunteers.
“I hope our work through the habitat project and the walleye stocking spreads awareness about the Elkhart River,” Deegan said. “I hope people can see that the Elkhart River is a valuable resource worth protecting.”