Many Buckeye State anglers are unsure if Lake Erie's present walleye bonanza is going to continue. Our expert asked state biologists to explain what's going on. (March 2009)
If you've fished Lake Erie for walleyes over the last couple of years, by now you've discovered that the fishery has been experiencing incredible gains. Both numbers of walleyes and their sizes just keep going up.
Today, most Buckeye State anglers would have to reach far back in their memories to find a time when Lake Erie walleyes were this large, healthy and prolific. Just a few years ago, in fact, catching a limit of Lake Erie walleyes was an accomplishment to brag about. Often the feat took all day, and many fish barely made the legal size limit. Nowadays, anglers often catch their limits in just a few hours, and their average fish will often be somewhere around 24 inches and 4 pounds in weight.
Sometimes this can be greatly exceeded. For example, on a walleye outing last June, I boated five fish in three hours. That is noteworthy in itself. However, two of the fish were just shy of 32 inches.
Two others were 27 inches, and the smallest was 23 inches. My limit of fish weighed over 43 pounds!
Two friends I was fishing with did just as well. All month, we periodically harvested limits of walleyes, always with fish over 28 inches, thus meeting the minimum requirement for Fish Ohio Certification.
With walleye fishing this incredible, most Lake Erie anglers are asking, "How long this can go on?"
As with everything in life, there has to be a low to match the high.
Where -- and how far down -- that bottom will be in the next few years is determined by many different factors, some of which are beyond our control.
In fact, whether or not we will have a bottom is unclear.
For now, however, it's clear that Lake Erie is in a peak or approaching one, and Ohio's walleye anglers may never have as great a chance at catching large numbers of trophy-caliber fish as they do right now.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Narrowing down the complicated list of events and circumstance that have brought us today's incredible Lake Erie walleye fishery is hard, with many different factors having varying influences.
A major component is the research conducted by Lake Erie biologists for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division. The fish research facilities in Sandusky and Fairport head up this research, using a variety of tools. They combine creel reports, sample netting and tagging to get accurate reflections of what's going on beneath Lake Erie's waters.
The number of fish in a creel report or net sample tells them some things. But by taking scale samples and sizes, biologists can build an accurate picture of the overall population.
From this and other information, they can extrapolate such things as yearly hatch rates and survival rates, which they then use to adjust fishing regulations to preserve the fishery's long-term sustainability.
Years ago, regulations were put in place that lowered the limit on walleye catches from March 1 through April 30. These limits were intended to lower the numbers of walleyes taken during their critical spawning period. Today, that limit is four.
Research conducted by Lake Erie biologists set the foundation for these regulations. Because of the increased vulnerability of fish concentrated on their spawning grounds, it was determined that limits needed to be imposed to protect them.
Sound simple? Not quite! These regulations, stemming from the same research, put into place the final major components that changed Lake Erie into a walleye angler's paradise.
The number of spawning fish is not the only thing that influences hatch success. Predation, silt, weather and a host of other factors have an effect. Heavy rainfall with the usual accompanying silt can drastically, even critically, affect a spawn by covering the walleye eggs and essentially smothering them. Spawning walleyes in the Sandusky and Maumee rivers are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. Wind direction on Lake Erie can push silt-laden waters coming from a swollen river into the island and reef areas of Lake Erie, which are another major spawning ground, and kill the eggs there.
The Sandusky, Maumee and Grand rivers, along with their adjacent bays, should be great choices for anglers during the walleyes' early spawning run.
Probably above all other natural influences, the spring rains accompanying the walleye spawn control how well any spring hatch will be, year after year.
The spring of 2003 saw the positive effects of all these factors. Due to regulations limiting anglers to three fish, anglers took home fewer walleyes that spring. This led to more fish making it to their spawning sites and depositing their eggs.
That year's spring rains hit hard very early, but then became more moderate -- and even fizzled out, if you ask steelhead anglers who fished the rivers during that time.
The low silt levels in the rivers meant that more eggs survived to hatch. And with a light wind predominantly from the northwest, whatever silt got funneled into Lake Erie never made it to the reefs.
The walleye hatch thrived and flourished with numbers that were phenomenal.
BY THE NUMBERS
Year to year, hatch numbers vary. Fisheries biologists get these numbers through bottom-trolling nets and counting the number of small fish per acre. They then use this and other information to extrapolate the number of walleyes expected to enter the fishery as two-year-olds.
On Lake Erie, the yearly average recruitment for walleyes is between 10 and 12 million fish. Since 2003, we haven't met that number even once, but it's important to remember that the 2003 hatch is used in computing this average -- which would bring the number up considerably.
Also an "average" is just that: an average. We have averaged 14.9 million fish over the last five years, well above the long-term average that is already inflated by 2003's figures.
Now, to put 2003's effect on the fishery into context: The nearest large influx of walleyes int
o Lake Erie occurred back in 1991, and that was 19.7 million fish.
What does all this information tell us about Lake Erie's walleyes?
While Ohio's walleye anglers are presently taking some 2 million fish per year -- double the catch of just a few years ago -- when you add in normal mortality and commercial harvest, it means that Lake Erie's walleye population is declining.
Lake Erie simply has not been able to produce as many walleyes as have been leaving the lake annually over the last few years.
Though the population decline is present, it's important to take into account that the population is as high as it is only because of the 2003 hatch. Simply put, that year's incredible hatch put a large number of fish into the lake. And when we went back to more normal reproductive years, that number had to fall.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED?
Despite what the trends above may seem to imply, Ohio walleye anglers need not panic.
Jeff Tyson is the supervisor and a fisheries biologist for the Sandusky Fish Research Unit.
"I don't believe that the population decline for Lake Erie walleyes will mean any sort of crash as it relates to sport fishing," he says.
"Too many other variables such as water temperature and clarity influence catch rates, and the population is just one factor."
Tyson pointed out that because of the temperatures several years ago, migrating fish headed east or north much faster than normal. And though Lake Erie had a good population of fish that year, the catch rate for Buckeye State anglers was dismal.
The opposite can just as easily be true for moderate populations of walleyes. When the weather is right and the migration is slower, fishing may be fantastic.
The variables are countless, and their effects just as numerous.
Another fact that should reassure Lake Erie's walleye anglers is that although the lake's recruitment level may be less than the harvest, it's only marginally so. Year-classes with fantastic numbers are still out there. And even with normal reproductive numbers during the spring hatches, the stockpile will slowly rise and fall -- but with no massive crashes. Lake Erie shelters an existing stockpile of walleyes that should endure all but the most extreme situations.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2009
What can Ohio's Lake Erie anglers expect this year and beyond? For starters, this spring should be another phenomenal one, with many larger walleyes. The 2003 hatch will still be dominating the catch, and Buckeye State anglers can count on these fish to be even larger than last year.
Anglers will start catching a few more fish from later hatches, mainly the 2005 and 2007 year-classes. But most of their creel will consist of walleyes in the upper 20 inches.
As summer warms up and lake temperatures climb, anglers can expect most of the larger fish to migrate. Biologists point out that the larger females and the older fish have the greatest migratory urges.
Realizing this, anglers should hit the migratory schools while they are present and then, when the spawning schools have left, fall back on the resident population of fish.
Smaller, younger fish will likely dominate these resident populations. But be assured: Many big fish will still be present, including the much older year-class males.
The next year or two will likely be the same, with later hatches slowly taking up more of the creel.
After catching hogs for years, some anglers may find this a bit of a letdown. But the silver lining is that big fish will still be there.
And with that hatch of 56 million fish in 2003, anglers can be assured that there will be plenty of them.
With that many fish getting to be 10 years or older, the likelihood of catching a new state-record walleye has never been better.
Chances are that walleye anglers are already landing some of the best fish of their lives, and this trend will likely continue. The next few years will provide many Buckeye State anglers with their best chance for that trophy of a lifetime.
WHERE TO GO
Early this spring, anglers will experience their best fishing in the spawning areas. The reefs in the western basin, including the island areas, will be good places to find walleyes. The Sandusky, Maumee and Grand rivers, along with their adjacent bays, should be great choices for anglers during the walleyes' early spawning run.
Shore-bound anglers really benefit during this period, since the fish should be shallow and easily accessible. As the spawn winds down, walleye anglers will have their best chances by moving back outside Lake Erie's bays as walleyes return to the lake to begin moving along their migration routes.
Near-shore waters usually hold good numbers of the fish because lake temperatures are still relatively low. This is a real plus for local anglers who need not travel far offshore to catch limits of bruisers.
Shore-bound anglers can still catch some good fish by working the rocks near any of the break walls or piers along Lake Erie's shore.
Night-fishing is often best for these anglers.
In late spring and into summer, schools of migrating walleyes can often be unpredictable. One day, I've caught walleyes less than a mile off shore in less than 20 feet of water. Then the next day, I've had to travel five miles and fish in 40 feet of water.
The point is to find the main schools and stay with them. They may sometimes stay put for a few days, but at other times, you may have to chase them for miles. If water temperatures are climbing quickly, many walleyes head for deeper water -- sometimes many miles away and out of range of some anglers.
Later in the year, even when the migratory schools are gone from the area you normally fish, the lake is certainly not devoid of walleyes.
Most anglers believe that nearly all the walleyes migrate east, but that has been proven to be untrue. In fact, many walleyes are left behind that may never leave the basin.
Some walleyes are what biologists consider "resident" fish, and they pretty much stay put. Even migrating walleyes do not all migrate east.
Biologist Tyson points out that Lake Erie's walleyes are actually divided into eight or nine sub-populations. Each population behaves differently, with different destinations in mind when they do migrate.
For example, most of the walleyes that
spawn on the reefs in the western basin either hang in the western basin or head north toward Canadian waters. Walleyes from the Maumee River do pretty much the same, while the fish from the Sandusky River head east. Those walleyes spawning in the Grand River usually spend their time in the central basin, while most of the fish spawning in the eastern basin will stay there.
While these are generalities, it's important to remember that populations of walleyes often overlap -- as with resident and migrating geese -- and that the divisions between the subpopulations often blur.
What walleye anglers can gleam from this knowledge is simple: During their migration, not all or not even most of the walleyes leave our Ohio waters. There are always enough of them near where you want to fish.
And with the 2003 hatch fueling the numbers now, anglers can expect big catches of bigger fish for years to come. Among them, perhaps, is that trophy you have been dreaming of!
Throughout the season, there is a 15-inch minimum-size limit on Lake Erie walleyes. A daily limit of four fish is also in effect from March through April. During the rest of the season, the creel limit is raised to six fish per day.
For more information about Lake Erie or any of Ohio's waterways, contact the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, at 2045 Morse Road, Building G, Columbus, OH 43229-6693.
Or call (614) 265-6300.
Anglers may also research them online at www.dnr.ohio.gov.
For more information and help in planning your next Lake Erie fishing trip, call Discover Ohio at 1-800-BUCKEYE, or try them online at www.discover ohio.com.