Let's look at what's in store for the Keystone State's walleye anglers in 2006. (April 2006)
While fishing quality at individual waters may have had its difficulties through the years, the statewide trend has seen improving walleye fishing opportunities throughout the past few decades. Pennsylvanians now have more places to fish for walleyes, and their close cousins saugers and saugeyes, than ever before.
Native only to the western part of the Commonwealth, walleyes have been widely spread through stocking. Though walleyes may not be the most popular sport fish in Pennsylvania, the picture changes somewhat when we look at the number of days spent in pursuit of a specific species. In this regard, walleyes climb to fifth behind trout, black bass, the white bass, striper and striper hybrid group and "anything."
Dividing the number of days spent angling by the number of anglers, walleyes jump ahead of even bass and trout. According to one survey, the average Pennsylvania walleye angler spends 16.7 days per year fishing for walleyes. This compares with 12.7 days per black bass angler and 11.2 days per trout angler.
Walleyes obviously have a devoted following in Pennsylvania. These are very desirable fish, and if anglers were asked what they would prefer to catch, a lunker walleye would probably rank at the top of the list.
In 2005, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked 55 lakes, ponds or reservoirs and 12 rivers or creeks with walleyes. That year, 73 million walleye fry and 681,000 walleye fingerlings were stocked. Over the past five years, fry stocking has ranged from 69 million to 84 million. Fingerling stocking has varied from 588,000 to 799,000 walleyes.
Saugeyes have been stocked since 1984 in Pennsylvania. Sauger and saugeye stocking numbers vary even more.
"We don't produce these fish in-state. We rely on out-of-state sources," said Bob Lorantas, Warmwater Unit leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Saugers and saugeyes (the latter a cross between a walleye and a sauger) tend to do better than walleyes in turbid water.
"The principle waters where we stock saugers are the Beaver River and Loyalhanna Lake. There are several others that we occasionally stock with saugers," Lorantas said. "Saugeyes go into Hemlock Lake and Lower Hereford Manor Lake. Survival has been demonstrated to be pretty good at these waterways. In some cases, availability is a challenge."
No saugers or saugeyes were available for stocking last year. Over the previous five years, stocking varied between 2,000 to 18,000 saugers and 2,000 to 22,000 saugeyes.
Our better walleye fisheries are supported through natural reproduction.
"In general terms across the state," Lorantas said, "what managers are telling me is that recruitment in our rivers is up a little. In the case of some lakes, it looks like recruitment of young fish is down a little."
Last summer was one of the hottest summers on record, and Lorantas noted that "thermal habitat crunch" impacted some adult walleyes.
"No statewide changes to the walleye-sauger-saugeye program are slated for 2006," Lorantas added.
The Northwest Region is the top walleye-fishing region in Pennsylvania. It is the native walleye range from which the species was spread to other regions via stocking.
Lake Erie is the state's best walleye fishery. It has had its ups and downs, but even in recent down years it is still the best. It suffers only in comparison with itself.
The walleye population appears to have hit the bottom of a cycle in 2002 and is now on the upswing. According to Lake Erie Fisheries Status and Trends 2004, a report from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Lake Erie Unit to the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, the decline in walleye numbers since the late 1980s appears to be turning around.
Catch rates for walleyes began dropping in 1998 with the biggest decline the following year. The catch rate started slowly improving in 2002, but fishing effort was still dropping. Total 2004 walleye fishing effort in the Pennsylvania portion of Lake Erie was a 44 percent decrease from 2003 and 66 percent below the long-term average, while the harvest was a 54 percent decrease. But the catch rate, 0.24 walleyes per line-hour, was actually close to the average over the past 18 years of 0.25 walleyes per line-hour, still far below the peak in 1988 of about 0.40 walleyes per line-hour.
Good spawns in 2001 and 2003 should mean that the walleye fishery should continue to improve. That was apparent last summer when walleye fishing was the best in several years. This year should be even better. The abundant undersized walleyes that were caught last year should increase the catch numbers this year. (Cont'd)
The regulations that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004, requiring a minimum length of 18 inches and a daily creel limit of four walleyes at Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay and peninsular waters has been changed effective Jan. 1, 2006, to a minimum size of 15 inches and a daily creel limit of six walleyes. The conservative outgoing rules were in response to the declining walleye population. The changing fortunes of the walleye stock allowed the return to former limits.
Launch ramps for Lake Erie are along Bayfront Parkway in Erie, at Presque Isle State Park, at North East and at Walnut Creek.
Early-season walleye fishing at Lake Erie starts relatively close to shore in depths of about 15 feet and is best after sunset. The action steadily moves toward deeper water. The best fishing occurs during summer, taking place in depths of 45 feet and greater.
A big question at Pymatuning Lake is how much ill effect a walleye die-off last summer will affect fishing this year. The unusually hot summer raised the water temperature, which apparently caused the die-off.
"It's hard to say for sure," said fisheries technician Freeman Johns. "We lost some fish, and we lost some big fish. It will be interesting to see. However, I don't think it'll be real bad."
Johns believes that anglers' concerns might have been overblown, but that is a natural response to the sight of so many dead fish. The fishing had been declining, already, however.
"The trend has been to fewer but larger fish," Johns said. "That was a concern, because we didn't have small fish."
Fish and Boat Commission sampling last April found walleyes from 8.7 inches to 27.4 inches with a total of 1,059 walleyes caught. Legal walleyes, fish at least 15 inches in length, made up over 96 percent of the catch, with 66 percent of the walleyes over 18 inches and 26 percent of the walleyes over 20 inches.
Through 2005, according to Johns, anglers reported good walleye fishing.
Annual walleye stocking was as low as 2.5 million fish during the mid-1990s and fishing declined. In response, walleye stocking was increased.
"The spring of 2004 we put in 21 million fry," Johns said. "Last year, we stocked 13 million fry."
The base request is 13 million at Pymatuning Lake. Additional stockings come from surplus walleye fry. Our principle walleye hatchery is Linesville, which is situated along Pymatuning Lake. Johns hopes for a couple of surplus stockings this year.
Because a reciprocal agreement with Ohio, which shares Pymatuning Lake, walleye fishing is allowed year 'round here. Minimum size is 15 inches with a daily creel limit of six walleyes. Either a Pennsylvania or an Ohio fishing license is valid on the lake if you are fishing from a boat, but a corresponding fishing license is required when fishing from shore.
One of the best walleye-fishing patterns following ice-out is casting stick baits over shallow bars and points. This approach is best while walleyes are moving toward or from spawning areas.
Pymatuning Lake is west of Meadville in Crawford County. Exit from I-79 at Meadville and follow U.S. Route 6 west.
Allegheny Reservoir walleye fishing has also been down, although not drastically. The annual Disabled American Veterans Benefit Walleye Tournament, the season kick-off for the Kinzua Allegheny Walleye Association, was actually the best ever in its three-year history.
The annual report on the Allegheny Reservoir fishery from Bob Hoskin, a U.S. Corps of Engineers biologist, noted last year that the walleye catch rate is still dropping slightly and the number of walleyes over 20 inches is down. Walleye stocking was increased last year from the usual of 3 million to 6 million fry.
Walleye fishing at the Allegheny Reservoir is best a couple of weeks after the season opens. The better walleye fishing tends to be north of the New York border, where a fishing license from the Seneca Nation of Indians is required. On the Pennsylvania side, one of the best fishing patterns is using jigs tipped with a night crawler around fallen trees. Look for trees that extend into deeper water. These are not hard to find along the reservoir's steep banks.
Allegheny Reservoir is on state Route 59 east from Warren.
Trout rule in the Northcentral Region. Most walleye anglers here head west to the Allegheny Reservoir, where two large bays extend into the region.
Much less well known is the walleye fishery in the Allegheny River. Other than some local anglers, most walleye anglers forget about the river above the Allegheny Reservoir where it flows through New York. The river actually begins in Potter County, then flows westward through McKean County before flowing northwest alongside PA Route 155 and then PA Route 446 into New York.
The stretch below Port Allegany has some fine walleye fishing. This is more like fishing for walleyes in a big creek. Look for them during the day in the cover of fallen trees, in deeper pools or under swirling water.
The North Branch Susquehanna River provides the best walleye fishing in eastern Pennsylvania. In fact, it rivals the Allegheny River during good years.
"We've just had a couple of pretty good years for legal-sized fish. The last couple of winters were nothing short of spectacular," said Robert Moase, the area fisheries manager for Area 4, which includes this part of the Susquehanna. He said that some 10- to 11-pound walleyes are caught each winter, which is the best time to fish this river.
"Anywhere there's a big pool, you can catch walleyes," Moase said.
During spring, fish the tails of riffles where they enter the big pools. Use stick baits or jigs tipped with live minnows.
"This is all natural reproduction," Moase said, noting that the North Branch has not been stocked in 20 years.
Lake Chillisquaque is a 165-acre impoundment contained within the Montour Preserve, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company. It is 11 miles north of Danville in Montour County. It is open to public angling and boating with one boat launch. Boating is limited to non-powered boats or boats propelled by electric motors only.
This lake was surveyed twice last year by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists. They found a good distribution of walleyes ranging from 5 to 28 inches.
Walleye fishing is quite good in the power dam section of the Susquehanna River. Do not expect big walleyes here, but on a good day you might catch several. Fishing should be good during spring and again during fall at the tailwaters of the dams. Anglers fish from catwalks below the dams or from boats using jigs tipped with live minnows.
Struble Lake in Chester County could be a regional hotspot for big walleyes. A survey by Fish and Boat Commission biologists in April 2004 captured 28 walleyes per hour of electro-shocking effort. The average catch in Southeast Region lakes is 27 walleyes per hour of electro-shocking effort.
While close to average in total number of walleyes, the number of larger walleyes was above average. Biologists collected 27 walleyes per hour that were at least 15 inches long and 19 walleyes per hour that were at least 20 inches long. Southeast Region lakes average 20 walleyes 15 inches long or longer per hour with five walleyes per hour at least 20 inches long.
The largest walleye collected during the Struble Lake survey was 25 inches long and weighed 6.6 pounds.
A trap-net study later that month captured a 29-inch walleye and substantiated the weighting toward larger walleyes with 78 percent of the fish at least 20 inches in length. Those fish have had two more years of growth since the survey. You do the math!
Walleyes have not been stocked at Raystown Lake since 1998.
Night electro-shocking studies here by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists last April was conducted at the mouth of Great Trough Creek because walleyes make an annual spawning run through this area. A total of 36 walleyes were captured during the survey. The catch consisted of 30 males from 18 to 27 inches and six females from 25 to 28 inches.
Walleye fishing at Raystown Lake has been spotty lately, with most of the catch taking place early in the season in the Great Trough Creek area.
The big walleye-fishing story in the Southwest Region is the three rivers region. Like the resurgence of the bass fishery in these waters that was supposed to be showcased by the 2005 BASS Masters Classic, the walleye fishing is often overstated and overrated. Nonetheless, it is a good and improving walleye and sauger fishery, even in downtown Pittsburgh. Fish around the creek mouths and below navigation dams. Check the bridge piers later this summer.
At Lake Somerset in Somerset County, 81 walleyes were captured with trap nets and night electro-shocking gear in April and May 2005. The majority of fish were 15 inches or greater. Eight of the 81 walleyes were between 24 and 29 inches.
The walleye catch in 2005 was lower than in 1995; however, water temperatures during the survey were more favorable to capturing walleyes in 1995 than in 2005. Walleye fishing has been good here for the past couple of years.
At High Point Lake, also in Somerset County, an April 2005 survey by Fish and Boat Commission biologists found a walleye population that has improved since a similar survey two years previous. All of the walleyes captured were longer than 15 inches, the largest 25 inches.
The best catch rate for walleyes, 0.18 per hour, according to the 2004 Tournament Catch Report Synopsis, occurred at the Monongahela River.
For more information about the walleye fishing in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, P.O. Box 67000, 1601 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17106-7000; or call (717) 705-7800.
For more information about traveling in the state, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120; or call (717) 232-8880 or (800) VISIT-PA.