Ohio's 2009 Lake Erie Forecast

Ohio's 2009 Lake Erie Forecast

The 2009 fishing season on Lake Erie is shaping up to be another record breaker, with lunker walleyes, smallmouths, steelhead and yellow perch awaiting anglers. Here's the story! (May 2009)

With two years behind us with near-record catch rates for nearly all of Lake Erie's popular game fish species, 2009 looks to be another year of full creels and lunker fish. In fact, if past trends are any indication, many of the fish caught this year will make even the most seasoned Lake Erie fisherman whoop like a schoolboy who has just earned his first kiss.

Lake Erie anglers have been experiencing phenomenal success in recent years. Numbers are very good to fantastic for almost any species an angler chooses to pursue. Trophy-sized fish are abundant in Lake Erie, and anglers are taking Fish Ohio qualifiers with extraordinary regularity.

Large fish are being caught so regularly that many veteran anglers on Lake Erie are predicting that established records should start falling.

Here is a look at what is happening and how you can get in on the action.

WALLEYES
The big story on Lake Erie is the walleye, perhaps the most sought-after fish by sport anglers on Lake Erie in recent years. Walleyes have been surpassing most Buckeye State anglers' expectations from Toledo to the Pennsylvania border. Last May, a Lake Erie angler caught a monster walleye that was just a couple ounces shy of the state record. The fish was taken in the Sandusky Bay near the Bay Bridge.

Other anglers fishing a tournament in the area during the same time were also turning in amazing catches of bruiser 'eyes themselves. This trend became more the norm during most of May and through June for anglers throughout Lake Erie's fishery as walleyes in the mid 20-inch range became commonplace.

Jeff Tyson, an Ohio Division of Wildlife biologist supervisor, heads the Sandusky Fish Research Unit, one of the two fish research units monitoring Lake Erie.

Using information obtained through netting programs and creel reports, the research unit relies on population modeling. These models are used to determine regulations year to year that will best serve Ohio's Lake Erie anglers while protecting the long-term sustainability of the fishery.

The present bag limit of four walleyes per day from March 1 through April 30 and six walleyes per day from May 1 until the last day of February is one of those regulations. There is a 15-inch minimum size limit for walleyes on Lake Erie.

A good example of one of the programs being used is the radio-tracking program conducted last year and being continued this spring in the Sandusky River and Sandusky Bay. While walleye numbers may be good on Lake Erie as a whole, the production numbers for the Sandusky region have been falling in recent years, and radio-tracking may help provide answers as to why and how to correct it.

"I believe anglers can expect walleye fishing to be much like last year," said Tyson. "At least the numbers of fish will be nearly the same. There will probably be some fish from the 2005 hatch just reaching legal size that will start showing up in the catch, but about 50 percent of the overall population will be from the 2003 hatch."

"Anglers should be aware," he added, "that fish from this age group are large, and the larger and older that walleyes get, the more migratory they are. We may also start seeing some 2007 year-class fish show up, but they are likely to be sub-legal until fall, when some will reach legal size."

Walleye anglers looking to get in on the outstanding action this spring have a long list of possibilities, but with as migratory routes from multiple spawning populations converge, the western basin will still be dominant among traditional hotspots.

Tyson said Maumee Bay and the Toledo shipping channel should both hold great numbers of walleyes.

"Anglers can also do well north of the reef into the flats around the islands," claims Tyson. "Kellys Island, the Bass Islands and the reefs in the Camp Perry firing zones will also be great spots for anglers chasing bruiser walleyes."

Of course, the western basin is not the only place to go this May. Any of the reefs, sandbars and channels from Sandusky to Pennsylvania will hold their share of walleyes. Boat-anglers leaving from Vermilion, Beaver Creek, Lorain or any other spot along Lake Erie's shore need not go far to find big fish. Anglers caught 30-inch-plus walleyes last spring along these routes and this spring anglers should see some even fish bigger.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife considers walleyes 28 inches or more to be trophy fish, and anglers skilled or lucky enough to catch one will receive a Fish Ohio Certificate and pin. (Continued)

Anglers will find more information and application forms online at www.dnr.ohio.us/wildlife.

Trolling is one of the most common walleye-fishing methods on Lake Erie. Spoons are used primarily, but a few anglers employ plugs. Color choices vary, but gold is a good starting choice. Spoons with purple in the color scheme seemed particularly productive last May.

Buckeye State anglers planning to troll should also have a selection of crawler harnesses on hand. By mid- to late May last year, these seemed to outperform most other lures. Something with purple in it was also very productive last year.

When the wind is right, many walleye anglers prefer to drift-fish. Weight-forward spinners with crawlers are very productive, but last year, when things started warming up in May, the fish seemed to prefer crawler harnesses with a purple color scheme.

Shore-bound anglers can also get into the walleye action this month from any of the lake's many piers and breakwall locations. With relatively cool water conditions, many walleyes will hold close to shore. Casting minnow imitation plugs and jerkbaits during the early morning and evening hours works well for most anglers.

The rocky shore near the harbor and pier locations, such as those found in Huron and Lorain, also work well with walleyes that are still holding near shore.

YELLOW PERCH
"We use bottom trawling and netting as part of our management technique for perch," said biologist Tyson, "This information helps us create our population models."

While populations of perch are still good on Lake Erie, Tyson said population surveys and models show overall numbers to be dropping, at least

until the 2007 hatch enters the fishery.

What this means for Lake Erie perch fishermen is that limits were changed last year west of the Huron Pier. Daily bag limits were dropped from 30 to 25 fish and will remain that way for the 2009 season. Perch limits continue to be 30 fish per day for the rest of Lake Erie and there is no size limit.

While fishing pressure for perch had been lower in recent years, probably because of the increased interest in walleye fishing, last year saw an increase in angler effort. With 50 percent of the perch population coming from the 2003 hatch, many perch anglers were catching respectable numbers of fish, which may have been a contributing factor to the effort increase.

Though overall population numbers may be dropping, Lake Erie's perch anglers did very well last year. Most found the fishing a little slower than in the recent past, but sizes more than made up for it. With some culling, many anglers took home limits of 10-inch perch, and anglers willing to spend more time fishing and culling a bit deeper could sometimes go home with fish averaging nearly 12 inches.

With a few 14-inch fish thrown in on occasions and even a few 15- and 16-inch perch making regular appearances in many creels, Lake Erie's perch fishing will have to be considered great by any perch angler's standards!

"Decent numbers of perch from the 2005 hatch will be caught this year," Tyson predicted. "May anglers will do best near shore because the perch will still be spawning at that time. There will also be fair numbers of small fish caught, but overall, the perch fishing will be much like last year."

Perch fishing in May is traditionally one of the best times for Buckeye State anglers. Since the fish are in near shore areas and concentrated for the spawn, they are especially accessible. Shore-bound anglers can reap good catches of respectable fish that later in the year will be unreachable for them. Small-boat anglers can also catch large numbers of the tasty fish without having to ride far offshore and confront Lake Erie's temperamental waters.

Jeff Tyson offers a couple of places for Lake Erie perch anglers to try this May.

"The traditional hotspots will still be the same," said Tyson. "The islands in the western basin and the Toledo water intake on the far western end of the lake would be good places to go. Any of the breakwalls and piers will also be great spots for shoreline anglers."

Most Lake Erie anglers in search of perch use weighted rigs with two to three hooks on them. Shiners or other minnows are the most productive bait. It is important to keep the bait near the bottom but with the line tight enough to detect what is often a very light bite. The larger fish often seem to have the lightest bite. Bouncing the rig, which is usually accomplished by taking advantage of wave action on the boat, is also beneficial.

STEELHEAD
Some 400,000-plus steelhead were released in Ohio's rivers last year with the same number planned this spring. Each year, as part of its management plan, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife raises and releases more than 400,000 Little Manistee-strain steelhead trout fingerlings. The fingerlings are 6 to 8 inches long and are stocked into five Lake Erie tributaries: the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin and Grand rivers, and Conneaut Creek.

The fish migrate into the lake where they spend the summer in the deeper, cooler waters of Lake Erie. During fall and into spring, the fish return to the tributaries as part of their spawning run.

Typically, steelhead caught by Buckeye State anglers average about 25 inches long, weigh about 5 to 6 pounds and have spent at least two years in Lake Erie.

Some steelhead, fish that have spent six years or more in Lake Erie, are longer than 30 inches and weigh over 10 pounds. These fish make up a significant part of the population; however, landing one after hooking it is quite a feat in some of the smaller streams.

"Steelhead fishing on Lake Erie has been down in recent years," Tyson said. "May will see most steelhead action in the tributaries coming to an end as the steelhead finish their spawn and return downstream. While the five main tributaries are the focus of the migration, anglers should keep in mind that steelhead will go up nearly every creek, stream or ditch that will support them as part of their migration," Tyson added.

Though May is at the end of the annual steelhead run, for many anglers fishing the streams and rivers it is the most productive month. Warmer weather and more stable water levels make the fish still in the streams easier to access and very much more fishable. Flies, float rigs with wax worms or spawn sacs, salmon eggs and small spinners are among the most common methods of fishing for them in the streams and rivers.

Anglers not wishing to try stream fishing this May will want to concentrate their efforts around the stream mouths. Break walls and piers leading into river harbor areas can also be productive. Anglers on the lake itself may want to try deep trolling spoons or plugs near the same areas, targeting post-spawn fish making their way back out into Lake Erie.

The daily bag limit for steelhead on Lake Erie and all its tributaries is two fish from Sept. 1 through May 15. From May 16 through Aug. 31, the daily bag limit is increased to five steelhead.

A minimum size limit of 12 inches is also in effect for steelhead throughout the year.

SMALLMOUTH BASS
Fishing pressure for Lake Erie's smallmouth bass has been lower in recent years. While this may be at least partially a result of regulations put into place a few years back that limited anglers to catch-and-release fishing from May 1 through the last Saturday in June, the overall harvest rate for Lake Erie anglers targeting smallmouths is still relatively low.

"We still don't know why so many fish have been disappearing once they reach about 2 years of age," said biologist Tyson. "Whether it is predation, competition or some other sort of mortality is unclear, but we find the young smallmouths in our surveys from spawning up until about 2 years old, and then for some reason they are suddenly absent from the nets.

"No one has a good answer why yet," Tyson said, "but younger fish numbers are starting to improve."

While numbers of smallmouths might be low compared with just a few years ago, the size of fish caught is certainly improving.

Lake Erie's smallmouth anglers may not be catching as many fish per hour, but the ones they do catch are impressive.

"The vast majority of smallmouths will be 3 to 4 pounds this May," Tyson said.

The western basin is again Tyson's picks for the best places to go in May.

"Smallmouths will be spawn

ing, so anglers will find most around the rocky areas near shore," Tyson said. "The islands and reefs will be good places to start, and anglers targeting these areas in 5 to 20 feet of water should find plenty of fish."

The preferred fishing methods include jigging or casting plugs and spinners. Trolling using diving plugs on planer boards is also productive for many smallmouth anglers.

Lake Erie has a 14-inch minimum size limit for smallmouths and fishing is catch-and-release only from May 1 through the last Saturday in June, when a five-fish creel limit kicks in for the rest of the year.

OTHER SPECIES
White bass fishing on Lake Erie is continuing to improve as harvest rates and angler efforts climb.

"Our fall gill net surveys produced lots of big white bass," claims Tyson. "Their numbers are recovering and it is going to be a very decent fishery this year.

"White bass have annual spawning runs starting in April and continuing through early June," he added. "Anglers targeting white bass in May will do best in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, but some white bass will run up a host of other rivers and creeks."

Largemouth bass have been expanding their range in the bay areas along with a variety of panfish.

Anglers can catch them along the rocky shorelines and breakwalls.

"We have been seeing a relatively high incidence of muskies and northern pike being reported," Tyson noted. "This may be an indication that they are expanding in the bay areas."

For more information about fishing Lake Erie, contact the Fairport Fish Research Unit at (440) 352-4199 or write them at 1190 High Street, Fairport Harbor, OH 44007.

Or, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife headquarters for more information about Lake Erie or any of Ohio's waterways at 2045 Morse Road, Bldg. G, Columbus, OH 43229-6693; or call (614) 265-6300.

You can also research them online at www.dnr.ohio.gov.

For more trip-planning information, contact Discover Ohio at (800) BUCKEYE or write the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism, P.O. Box 1001, Columbus OH 33216-1001.

They can be reached online at www.discoverohio.com.

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