The Walleyes Of Lake Erie

Time has changed Lake Erie's walleye fishing over the last decade. Big walleyes don't hide "behind every log" like they once did, but they're one year older and one year bigger! (June 2009)

Mark Martin often catches big walleyes like this one when he works extra hard on Lake Erie. But poor spawning seasons over the last six years have lowered the number of big 'eyes annually caught by recreational anglers.

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.

Another bright side to having an older year-class is the size of fish being caught.

"The fish that hatched in 2003 are getting pretty big. A lot of the walleyes being caught now are in the 22- to 25-inch range," Francis explains, "because those fish have been around for a long time."

For sure, walleyes don't mature overnight; it can take quite some time after a hatch for anglers to start finding mature walleyes in the catches.

"It takes several years after a hatch to really understand how productive a certain year-class of fish will be. If we have a great 2009 spring hatch, anglers won't really notice it for a few years," Francis explains.

While walleye numbers are down from previous years, Francis says, he doesn't expect bag-limit changes or other changes to Lake Erie fishing regulations.

"Currently, our 2009 (fishing) regulations are set, but there will be a meeting in March to discuss the future regulations on Lake Erie. There are several factors that contribute to regulation changes. Currently, walleye bag limits are five fish in Michigan waters, with a 15-inch (minimum) size limit," Francis reports.

Managing walleyes on Lake Erie is both interesting and challenging because many states -- not just Michigan -- and another country manage the walleyes of Lake Erie.

"Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario (Canada) manage Lake Erie. In many cases we work together, but everyone manages things differently," Francis points out. For example, the MDNR fisheries staff manages the walleye numbers largely by allowing anglers to catch plenty of fish throughout the year. On the Canadian side of Lake Erie, however, commercial fishing for walleyes is prevalent.

"Every year things change," Francis admits, "but I've noticed that anglers adjust the way they do things and keep on fishing. When invasive species like zebra mussels showed up years ago, anglers changed fishing tactics. When fish numbers are down, anglers adjust their fishing tactics.

If you go to one of the boat launches in the summer, you will see hundreds of cars at the launch even when fishing isn't the greatest. The good news is everything runs in cycles, and, eventually, we will have a great year-class and there will once again be a lot of walleyes," Francis concludes.

Martin has adjusted the way he fishes Lake Erie and has learned to always think outside the box.

"One of the biggest problems I encounter when fishing Lake Erie is dealing with the invasive species. Using 'crawler harnesses," he admits, "is one of my favorite ways to catch walleyes, and it's one of the preferred methods of many anglers who walleye fish on Lake Erie.

"The problem is," Martin continues, "the white perch and other invasive species will nibble at the 'crawlers all day long and rob you blind, which will cost me fish and waste lots of time baiting rigs that could have been in the water. I solve the problem by using a (Berkley) Gulp! plastic worm instead of a live one. The little perch can nibble on those things all day long and won't do much harm. With a real worm, they can rob my hook every few minutes. . . . The other benefit is, a lot of times a pile of perch tugging at my fake worm will catch the attention of nearby walleyes. They will come over and inhale the rig that the perch are nibbling at." And it's fish on!

Martin suggests that if anglers are determined to catch a limit of walleyes, they should burn some gas.

"When the fishing gets tough, anglers have a few options. They can continue to troll back and forth in the same waters or they can explore," he says. "Buying a one-day fishing license in Ohio or Canada doesn't cost much money and exploring new waters in Lake Erie can be fun and productive if you can find the fish."

Meanwhile, anglers who want to stay on the Michigan side of Lake Erie have plenty of places to access its waters. Ernie Miller, a walleye guide from Muskegon, regularly fishes Lake Erie. He points to Sterling State Park in Monroe as a great place to launch a boat for anglers wanting to fish walleyes.

"Sterling State Park offers great access to Lake Erie. But in the summer, anglers better plan on being at the launch early in the morning. I've been there at 6 o'clock in the morning, and I've had to wait almost an hour to put my boat in the water when there is a good bite going," Miller says.

When launching at Sterling State Park, boaters will find it necessary to put some distance between them and the shoreline before they begin marking fish.

"The water is pretty shallow for a long distance in front of Sterling State Park," Miller explains. "I typically get a mile and a half off the shore before I start getting into good numbers of fish. The good news is once I find them, I usually find lots of them."

For more information about Sterling State Park, visit the DNR Web site at www.michigandnr.com, or call the park office, phone: (734) 289-2715.

Another boat launch that offers great access to Lake Erie is Metro Park in Brownstone. There is a 12-boat launch at the park, which sees plenty of traffic during the summer. Metro Park offers easy access to the Detroit River and Lake Erie. If you plan to launch here, a vehicle permit and launch permit are required.

Walleyes can often be caught a stone's throw from Metro Park, so it doesn't take long to find the fish from a boat when launching here. "You are at the mouth of the Detroit River, so the moment you leave the dock, you can begin finding fish," Miller adds.

For more information on Metro Park, visit www.metroparks.com or call the park office, phone: (800) 477-3189.

Luna Pier boat launch offers anglers a great place to launch their boats, too. Like the Metro Park launch site, once your boat is in the water, good fishing is right in front of you. " . . . Anglers who don't want to travel far or spend a lot of gas money will be happy launching at Luna Pier," Miller notes.

For more information about Luna Pier, visit www.lunapiermichigan. com or call the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, phone: (734) 384-3366.

Walleye numbers aren't at an all-time high, but Miller says these three launches offer consistent walleye fishing in June. Ang

lers can fish walleyes in these places several different ways and catch lots of fish.

"The nice thing about this area is there are often so many walleyes here," Miller says, "anyone with a little bit of knowledge can catch decent-size fish that are the perfect size for the frying pan."

Catching wallhangers has been more difficult recently, Miller admits, but not impossible.

"Many guys will drift jigs; other guys will fish 'crawler harnesses and bottom-bouncers. You can fish these walleyes several different ways and be successful," he says. "One of my favorite ways to fish walleyes on Lake Erie is to troll a Stinger spoon. I prefer a Little Scorpion spoon that is about 2 1/2 inches long. I troll this thing at a high rate of speed -- about 2 1/2 miles an hour. When there are lots of walleye around, they are usually competitive for food and will race after the spoon."

In early June, Miller uses most of these methods in fairly shallow water.

"I often find large numbers of walleyes in water as shallow as 6 feet. When I fish out in front of Metro Park, I fish the shipping channel and find the walleyes in about 12 feet of water," he explains, and when the bite is on, there are always lots of boats on the water. "Someone visiting the area for the first time just needs to go where all the boats are and find fish," he suggests.

One thing is for sure: The walleyes of Lake Erie are managed very closely, and the biologists are always keeping a close eye on the walleyes. They consistently adjust regulations accordingly to ensure that Lake Erie will always be known for its walleye fishing. Let's face it. Even when the walleye numbers are down like they are currently, the walleye fishing on Lake Erie is still much better than it is in most other Michigan lakes.

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