March means angling madness for Rock Island’s early spring spawners

Ask around what’s the best-eating freshwater fish and there’s a good chance walleye tops any serious angler’s menu.

True, walleye aren’t necessarily know for their bellicose resistance subsequent to biting a bait — leastwise not in the manner of, say, a burly smallmouth or mean-spirited musky. But owing to their delectable flavor, delicate flaky texture and bulky fillet slabs, walleye are as prized as any game fish that prowls the waters of North America.

Dale Gribble and the eye-popping walleye wall mount he made for display at the Rock Island State Park ranger station. Contact Gribble’s fishing-guide and taxidermy service at 931-743-8163.

Even though they’re not officially considered a cold-water fish, walleye are regarded by many as something of a “northern” species. To give an indication, at least three cities in Minnesota alone lay claim to the title of “Walleye Capital of the World.”

But in fact, at certain times of year, walleye fishing below the Mason-Dixon line — especially here in Tennessee — is superior even to renown Upper Midwest hotspots like the Big Lake They Called Gitche Gumee.

For starters, the world record walleye was caught by a man named Marbry Harper on Old Hickory Lake in 1960. At 41 inches and 25 pounds, that fish dwarfed the 17-18 pounders that stand as state records in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A lot of people are unaware that three years prior to the Old Hickory catch, Center Hill Lake produced a behemoth-class monster that, at 21-pounds 4-ounces, was a certified U.S. record until eclipsed by the Harper fish. You can stop in and see that fabled catch for yourself at the Rock Island State Park ranger office, where it is mounted on the wall with a placard telling the tale of how local anglers Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom hauled it ashore after a 20-minute tug o’ war one frigid January day in 1957.

For 54-year-old local fishing guide and master taxidermist Dale Gribble, there indeed does not exist a finer body of water than Center Hill Lake for landing trophy walleye.

Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom caught a 21¼ lb. walleye on Center Hill Lake in 1957. At the time it was a national record. Pictured above is Bryant and then 2-year-old Jimmy Grissom. (Photo via TN State Library and Archives)

“In my personal opinion, there is no better place anywhere in the world for walleye fishing,” said Gribble. “I have fished for walleye everywhere — from here to Canada and all over Canada. Fishing for walleye, that’s my thing. And I can tell you that when it’s on, there’s no beating walleye fishing on Center Hill Lake.”

Gribble maintains that the record Rock Island walleye isn’t even the biggest walleye he’s personally witnessed lugged out of a Center Hill honey hole.

Once when Gribble was fishing with his grandfather back in the mid-1970s, he said they observed a couple elderly anglers tow in a brute that would have eclipsed even the Old Hickory monstrosity.

“I will never forget it. They caught that thing on a bluegill, and it was he biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” said Gribble. “I still remember the exact bush they were tied on to when they caught it. You couldn’t believe it — that fish was massive. It was huge.”

“I had a picture for years and years — I wish I still did,” he added. “It was hanging on a scale and it weighed 27 pounds. That would be a world record today.” Gribble said it measured “right around 38 inches.”

Not every walleye is a trophy, but they’re always good-eating. Here a first-time walleye fisherman shows off his catch below Cordell Hull Dam. (Photo Credit: Bill Medley, Medley Fishing School. 615-397-4137)

But it was never reported for any kind of record verification. The guys who caught it “were a couple of old-timers who didn’t care about stuff like that,” said Gribble.

As far as predicting when the fishing is going to be “on,” there’s probably no better time than March, when walleye run by the thousands up Center Hill Lake’s headwaters on the Caney Fork for their yearly spawn. That’s when and where biologists from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency collect many of the walleye they use for breeding in state-run fry-rearing facilities, like the Normandy Fish Hatchery.

“The majority of the fish we collect come from Center Hill at Rock Island,” said Mike Jolley, the TWRA fisheries manager for Upper Cumberland reservoirs.

Because of their appetizing reputation, walleye that meet size-limit regulations “generally go home with people,” said Doug Markham, a four-decade veteran of TWRA who retired last year.

For that reason, stocking programs are important for maintaining strong numbers. “It’s a fishery that needs some help to sustain itself in a lot of these waters,” Markham said. In a lot of places like the Cumberland River system, walleye “would still be there if it wasn’t for stocking, but they wouldn’t be there is such abundance,” he said.