Thriving in the cool waters of Lake Erie and the Ohio River, the white-bellied, olive- and gold-colored sportfish generates $1 billion for the Buckeye State each year. A lead weight scandal at the Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship threw anglers into a fury, and Port Clintonians celebrate the time-honored tradition of dropping a 20-foot, 600-pound fiberglass walleye adorned in LED lights to mark the New Year.
Yet state lawmakers’ efforts to pass a bill crowning the walleye as Ohio’s official state fish – inspired by NBC4’s viewers and readers – floundered in the General Assembly last week.
“We have our battles with football with Michigan-Ohio,” Rep. Lisa Sobecki (D-Toledo) told fellow legislators in February. “We need to get over the battle of what should we have our state fish to be named. And I think it’s very clear that it needs to be the walleye.”
A tale of two fish
Despite being home to nearly 30,000 miles of river, 60,000 miles of stream channels and 312 miles of Lake Erie shoreline, Ohio is one of three states, including Indiana and Iowa, that remains symbolically fishless.
In an effort to break down a bill’s often lengthy life cycle at the Ohio Statehouse, NBC4, using responses from its viewers and readers, proposed a handful of species competing for the title of Ohio’s state fish in October 2021. One viewer suggested the smallmouth bass since it’s found in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Another offered up the goldfish “just because they’re cool.”
But it was the walleye, or sander vitreus, that ultimately prevailed.
Once the walleye emerged as the victor, NBC4 contacted every state lawmaker whose district borders Lake Erie to inquire whether a bill naming the sportfish as Ohio’s official fish could swim its way through the Statehouse.
Former state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo), who “was very surprised that we didn’t have an Ohio fish,” volunteered as tribute; she agreed to introduce a bill bestowing the designation to the walleye.
“We have a lot of official insects, amphibians, and so forth, so it’s time to have an official Ohio fish,” Fedor told NBC4 in October 2021. “And it’s a great way for people to come together in a positive way.”
Fedor’s Senate Bill 271 and its counterpart House Bill 484 -- which lawmakers considered over a spread of smoked walleye cheese dip and crackers in February this year -- died in the waters of the 134th General Assembly.
Failing to receive a vote in either chamber of the General Assembly by the end of 2022, the walleye bill’s chance of survival now rests on whether a lawmaker decides to reintroduce it in the new year.
It’s not the first time a state fish bill has flopped in the Ohio Statehouse. The decades-long debate spans back to the 1980s when walleye anglers in northern Ohio battled bass anglers down south about which of the two species should grace the list of state symbols, according to a 2003 article by The Morning Journal of Lorain.
“Ever since,” the report reads, “lawmakers could count on at least one state fish bill per two-year session, and the sponsors could count on their demise.”
‘Top of the pyramid’: Walleye dominate Ohio’s waters
About half of Ohio's 1 million anglers fish for walleye, according to Eric Weimer, a fishery biologist supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Although ODNR recorded about 82 million walleye in Lake Erie in 2021, Weimer said the toothy, glossy-eyed fish can be found across the state, from the Pymatuning Reservoir in Ashtabula County and Mosquito Creek Lake in Trumbull County to swaths of the Ohio River.
“They’re just a very ubiquitous fish that provides a lot of opportunity for our anglers,” he said. “They’re great tasting fish, a very mild flavor, so people enjoy eating them, and they provide quite a bit to Ohio’s economy.”
Walleye, top-rung predators that feast on small fish, minnows, yellow perch and bluegill, serve an important role at the top of Ohio waters’ food chain pyramid, Weimer said. Eliminating the species would have “massive impacts” on the predator-to-prey ratio, likely resulting in a ballooning of species that are less desirable to anglers, he said.
“It certainly would have impacts on anglers and people in Ohio who value walleye; they definitely would see impacts to our economy as long as people could no longer fish for them,” Weimer said. “And it would be fairly devastating, especially in the counties that are along the coastline of Lake Erie.”
As thousands of people prepare to flock to northwest Ohio to watch a fiberglass walleye named Wylie Jr. fall from the sky on New Year’s Eve, Weimer said the walleye’s popularity has remained strong throughout the state’s history.
State Rep. Michael Sheehy (D-Oregon), who co-sponsored the walleye fish bill in the Ohio House, noted the walleye isn’t just a sportfish -- it’s a fish Ohioans have put on the kitchen table since early colonial times. Weimer, who has caught more than his fair share of walleye along Lake Erie, said he couldn’t agree more.
“While it might not be the most healthy dish in the world, it’s really hard to beat a good walleye fish fry," Sheehy said.
It is unclear whether lawmakers plan to reintroduce a bill naming the walleye as Ohio’s official state fish. A spokesperson for Rep. Daniel Troy (D-Willowick), whose district touches Lake Erie, said the lawmaker plans to seriously consider the legislation in the next General Assembly.