Anglers are already reeling in walleye at Lake Fort Smith, but the catching may get better as more of these toothy fish prowl the scenic reservoir.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission started stocking walleye at Lake Fort Smith in 2013. Since then, the fisheries division has stocked anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 fingerling walleye in the lake each year. The goal is to establish a population of walleye that reproduces naturally, said Jon Stein, Northwest Arkansas fisheries supervisor and a fisheries biologist with Game and Fish.
Anglers catch walleye at the lake now. Stein and his helpers have also collected walleye in gill nets they set in the lake to evaluate the population.
Walleye are the target species, but white bass, largemouth bass and other game fish turn up in the nets. Most of the fish survive and are released after they’re weighed and measured.
Gill nets are mesh nets that are nearly invisible to fish. They swim into the net and get caught around the gill area. Stein headed out on the lake Jan. 14 to check 12 nets he’d set a day or two earlier to catch, measure and weigh some walleye.
“What we’re doing is seeing if the walleye are surviving well after we’ve stocked them,” Stein said, steering his boat across the smooth water. “They’re probably not reproducing on their own yet, but hopefully over time that’ll happen.”
Stein and two helpers collected a couple of 12-inch walleye along with an assortment of white bass, a flathead catfish, two big carp and a whopper largemouth bass that weighed 7.6 pounds. Stein plans to set more nets later this month and hopefully examine more walleye.
Nets are set along points and flats where game fish dwell 30 feet deep or less.
Game and Fish has stocked around 61,000 walleye fingerlings at Lake Fort Smith since 2013, Stein noted. Fingerlings average 1.5 inches long when they’re put into the lake. They can’t be kept in a tank or hatchery any longer than that because they start eating each other, Stein said.
It’s hard to say how many of those stocked fingerlings grow into catchable-size adult walleye.
“It could be anywhere from 1% to 30%. It’s really hard to gauge that on a big lake,” Stein said.
Stopping at the first gill net, Aaron Freeman and Kody Rudolph hauled in the mesh netting and tossed caught fish into a tub of lake water. Rudolph weighed and measured the walleye and other game fish. Stein recorded the data with pencil and paper.
Freeman and Rudolph work for the Fort Smith Utilities water department and help Stein with his fisheries work at the reservoir. Lake Fort Smith is a water supply for the city.
Both men are on the lake at least once a week taking water samples to monitor quality. Rudolph talks to lots of anglers and testified that walleye are a popular species.
“A lot of them use one-eighth-ounce jigs in different colors. They’ll cast them out and work them along the bottom,” Rudolph said. In the summer, nightcrawlers are a popular live bait for walleye.
Game and Fish waged an aggressive campaign years ago to get a sustainable walleye population established at Beaver Lake. The effort was a rousing success. Now walleye are one of the most sought-after fish at Beaver.
Walleye must be 18 inches or longer to keep at Beaver Lake. The daily limit is four. For now, the statewide daily limit of six walleye of any size applies at Lake Fort Smith.
Lots of anglers associate walleye with northern states like Iowa and Minnesota and rightly so. Farther south, walleye have the advantage of a longer growing season. They get big faster.
An 18-inch walleye at Beaver Lake is three to four years old, Stein said. In the upper Midwest, an 18-inch walleye is five to eight years old.
At Beaver Lake, Stein and crew do a walleye study every three years that’s similar to his work at Lake Fort Smith. He’ll do gill-net walleye research at Beaver in 2022.
The walleye fishing spotlight may shine as bright at Lake Fort Smith some day as it does at Beaver Lake.
“It’ll be nice to have another place to go to catch walleye,” Stein said.
Visit Lake Fort Smith
Lake Fort Smith is located north of Alma and south of Winslow two miles east of U.S. 71 in the Boston Mountains. The lake is 1,390 acres with a maximum depth of around 150 feet, said Kody Rudolph with the city of Fort Smith. The lake is a water supply for the city.
Lake Fort Smith State Park is on the west shore. The park has camping, cabins, trails, boat launch ramp, marina, a swimming pool and visitor center. The Ozark Highlands long-distance, backpacking trail starts at the park.