Could Ohio bag official state fish after years of floundering? Critics call choice crappie

An Ohio House Bill may finally settle the state’s multi-year battle to name a state fish.

House Bill 599, which passed the House today 93-4, designates sander vitreus — commonly known as the walleye — as the official fish of the state of Ohio. State Reps. Sean Brennan, D-Parma; and D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, introduced the bill.

“The walleye — sander vitreus — is the only choice to be Ohio’s official state fish,” argued Brennan in his testimony to the State and Local Government committee. “Considering naming any other fish would be a ‘red herring.’”

Brennan and Swearingen testified that Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie is the “walleye capital of the world,” with walleye fishing accounting for 70% of Lake Erie’s sport fishing economy.

Not everyone is hooked on the proposal. State Rep. Tom Young, R-Washington Twp., described the bill as a “waste of time.”

“I can understand (commemorating) something historic about Ohio, where someone has made a difference, but I’m not an advocate for a state fish” said Young.

Grant Blackford, fishing instructor and owner of Dayton-based charter Fishing with Grant, opposes specifically naming the walleye as Ohio’s state fish.

“I would do a smallmouth bass because it’s heavily in our river system here,” Blackford said. “It’s the most fun that my clients like to catch.” He says that walleyes are usually caught by “trolling,” a fishing technique where hooked bait or lure is dragged through the water by a boat.

In 2003, the Ohio House voted 88-3 to name the smallmouth bass to the position, an effort that floundered before it could become law.

H.B. 599 now must pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine for it to take affect. The bill is swimming farther than previous efforts to declare a state fish. Former Reps. Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo; and Michael Sheehy, D-Oregon, introduced a bill in 2022 that also would declare the walleye the state fish, but it went belly up before any votes were cast.

Ohio is a fish out of water when it comes to state symbols. Despite having two state fossils (Trilobite and Dunkleosteus), a state beverage (tomato juice), and a state rock song (”Hang on Sloopy”), Ohio is one of three states that still lacks an official state fish (the other two are Indiana and Iowa).

A 2021 NBC4 poll saw 27.5% of respondents back the walleye for state fish, while 20.8% and 20.6% backed the yellow perch and smallmouth bass, respectively.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommends catching walleye by trolling crankbaits that imitate gizzard shad, a type of fish that walleye tend to feed on this time of year.

May through July is considered peak walleye fishing season. The 2024 adult walleye population in Lake Erie is estimated to be in the top 25% of the past 30 years, continuing from higher-than-average harvest rates in 2023.

DeWine on Tuesday celebrated Fish Ohio Day by visiting Lake Erie and touting the importance of walleye to Ohio and how conservation efforts have led to a growing walleye population.

State officials cite a recent report that found Ohio’s 1.7 million anglers spent $5.5 billion and supported 34,000 jobs in 2022.

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