Photo by Tracy Breen.
Lake Erie holds legendary status among walleye fishermen. In fact, anglers from coast to coast have heard about Lake Erie largely because it’s a great walleye fishery.
In recent years, residents of Michigan and many of the neighboring states have known if they wanted to catch walleyes, the place to go was Lake Erie. One professional angler who has always enjoyed Lake Erie is Mark Martin. Martin makes his living fishing for walleyes so it’s easy to see why he loves Lake Erie.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, you could fish Lake Erie and catch your limit in a few hours. In many cases, the smallest fish was 5 or 6 pounds,” he reveals, “and it wasn’t uncommon to regularly catch walleyes in the 8- to 10-pound range. In fact, when I was fishing tournaments on Lake Erie, I often threw the 5- or 6-pound fish back in the water because I knew, in order to win a tournament on the lake, a much bigger walleye was needed.”
But time has changed Lake Erie’s walleye fishing over the last decade. Big walleyes don’t hide “behind every log” like they once did. Walleyes are often smaller now and there are fewer of them. Anglers have changed the way they fish the lake because big-fish catches are lower and invasive species of aquatic life have changed the fisheries — of note, the walleye fishery — of Lake Erie.
“Twenty years ago, the lake was relatively dirty, so you could troll over an area with planer boards close to the boat and catch walleye after walleye. You could fish the same pod of fish and catch fish all day long. Those days are long gone,” Martin explains. “Zebra mussels have made the water very clear, and walleyes are often spooky because they can see the planer boards and the boat overhead, especially when they are feeding near the surface of the water. This has forced us to fish Lake Erie differently. Now, we keep the planer boards 150 feet away from the boat, and I always make sure my boat is going over the top of a school of fish.”
Martin relies heavily on a good GPS (Global Positioning System) unit and a good fish finder. There are many high-quality brands of these electronics available, including Lowrance and Garmin as two of the preferred brands for anglers.
“There used to be so many walleyes in Lake Erie that one school of fish was several miles long. You could follow that school around all day and catch fish,” Martin says. “Now, the schools are much smaller, so you need to pay attention to what you’re doing to ensure you continue to catch fish.”
Martin explains that he uses his fish finder to locate a school of walleyes; then, he uses his GPS unit to mark where he finds them. In that way, he can keep track of where the small pod is and troll accordingly.
“If I lose track of the fish, I can go back to my starting point and try to find them again,” he points out. “In the past, you could keep trolling and never run out of fish once you found them. Now, I heavily rely on electronics to keep an eye on the walleyes and where they’re going. With a small pod of fish, you can lose them easily.”
With Lake Erie’s extra-clear water, it doesn’t take much to spook a small pod of walleyes. “With the right electronics, I can always make sure I am fishing in the right spot,” Martin adds.
Fisheries biologist Jim Francis of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources may understand the fisheries of Lake Erie better than anyone. He says a number of things have made walleye fishing on Lake Erie more challenging recently. (Continued)
“One of the biggest reasons walleye fishing on Lake Erie hasn’t been as good as it has been in the past is because our last good year-class of fish was in 2003, which is six years ago,” he explains.
Every year, it seems that anglers and state fisheries biologists cross their fingers and hope the walleyes have a good spawning year. Oftentimes, the fish don’t have a successful year, but rarely does Lake Erie see as long a dry spell of good recruitment in its walleye fishery as it has over the last six years.
“It’s not uncommon to have a great spawning season, where you see an overabundance of fish from a certain year, and then a few years where the spawning season is not good or just an average year,” Francis explains. “Our last great year was 2003, and we’re still hoping that in the next couple years we will have an exceptional spawning season.”
One of the strongest contributing factors that determine a good year from a bad year is the weather. Lake Erie’s walleyes always spawn, but spring storms can cause many problems. The strong spring storms Michigan has seen the last few years also will affect the success of recent walleye spawning seasons. According to Francis, a late spring is said to help with the walleye hatch.
“When we have strong storms in the spring, a lot of the favored spring spawning areas are overturned by strong winds and waves that create dirty water. The eggs are actually smothered, which causes a low hatch,” Francis explains. When strong storms occur later in the spring rather than earlier, much of the walleye spawning is completed and late spring storms have little or no effect on the walleye spawn.
Lake Erie’s fish numbers always fluctuate and biologists are regularly monitoring walleye numbers by doing netting surveys. The current low numbers don’t have anyone really worked up yet.
“Recent fall surveys show that the 2008 year-class of fish was down, which wasn’t very good news,” Francis admits. “The good news is that we thought 2007 was a below-average year, but recent surveys indicate that 2007 was actually an average year. At this point, we will take ‘average’ when you consider how many years we’ve gone without a good hatch.”
How long can one good year-class support sportfishing for walleyes in Lake Erie? According to Martin, a good hatch, like the one in 2003, can support Lake Erie for years.
“For instance, 80 percent of the walleyes caught on Lake Erie in 2007 were from the 2003 year-class,” he reveals. “In 2003, Lake Erie had about 22 million adult walleyes. In 2004, it had about 14 million walleyes. In 2005, once the 2003 age-class reached maturity, the population estimate was over 6
0 million walleyes. Obviously, one good hatch can support this lake for a long time. Now we just need another good hatch, and Lake Erie will be very good again.”
Francis says he believes the 2003 year-class was so big and dominant that Erie’s walleye anglers are likely to catch fish from the that year-class for another four or five years. Since it looks like 2007 was an average year, he adds, fishermen will soon see those fish among their catches. Anglers could start seeing a lot of 15-inch fish being caught, he points out.
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