Here's a look at how things are shaping up for Pennsylvania's walleye anglers in 2009. (April 2009)
Pennsylvania's walleye anglers have good reason for optimism as the 2009 season approaches. In many instances, the numbers of legal walleyes should be on the increase this year. Rivers in particular should provide good angling. Aggressive stocking efforts are having a good effect in certain lake situations, boding well for the present as well as the future.
From a fisheries management aspect, one of the more significant items is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's decision to -- at least temporarily -- halt stocking efforts on the Susquehanna, Allegheny and Lehigh rivers. Select portions of these three rivers had been stocked with walleye fry in an effort to augment natural reproduction.
"We have been stocking walleye fry in portions of these rivers where spawning habitat was believed to be poor," said Dave Miko, the PFBC's Division of Fisheries Management chief. "In some of these waters, dams restricted the ability of walleyes to move freely throughout the river. However, the recent removal of dams or the improvement of fish passages over these dams has provided walleyes with increased access to spawning areas. As a result, we think the current level of natural reproduction in these rivers may be capable of sustaining the walleye population and providing the recreational opportunities that anglers have come to expect."
Fall electro-shocking surveys to collect young-of-the-year walleyes will take place at the same sites where these activities have traditionally occurred. Comparing data from "stocked" versus "non-stocked" years will enable fisheries managers to determine the contribution stocking makes. And, since not all sections of these rivers had been stocked with walleye fry, the numbers from the formerly stocked sites will also be compared with the findings within traditionally non-stocked waters.
The commission expects it to take at least three years to determine the effect fry stocking makes on these three rivers.
In general, rivers should provide some of the most consistent walleye angling in the state, at least for the first couple of months of the season. That's when the fish tend to be scattered and are more difficult to catch. Excellent year-classes from 2005 and 2007 will fuel the river fisheries. While the 2007 fish will still be sub-legal, most of the walleyes produced during 2005 will be in excess of the 15-inch minimum length requirement this spring.
Last season, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission -- using data collected over the past few years -- conducted an examination of the Susquehanna River walleye fishery in an attempt to determine the effect fishing pressure has on the walleye resource. The examination included the North Branch and main stem of the Susquehanna. The West Branch was not included.
According to the agency, the PFBC conducted an angler use and harvest study of the Susquehanna River from Sunbury to the Conowingo Pool and the Juniata River from Port Royal to the mouth in 2007.
The agency plans to generate harvest estimates from this study as data analysis progresses. For now, however, raw data from the study will be used to show that walleye anglers practiced a high level of catch-and-release on these rivers.
According to the report, interviewed anglers reported catching 963 walleyes during the 2007 survey, including 442 (46 percent) fish that were of legal length. Of the 442 legal walleyes caught, anglers reported releasing 336 (76 percent). Survey clerks only observed 106 walleyes (24 percent of total reported legal catch) in anglers' creels.
This study took place from April to October, and did not include the months when the walleye fishery was at its peak.
The Susquehanna River walleye fishery is at its best during the colder months, the report indicated. Fisheries Management personnel observations, waterways conservation officer reports, angler and bait shop contacts, and a review of angling message boards all indicate that the walleye catch and harvest peaks from late October through November, and once again just before the season closes in mid-March.
Additionally, these anecdotal observations suggest that much of the walleye catch during the winters of 2007 and 2008 consisted of sub-legal fish. This has led some anglers to conclude that angler harvest has cropped walleye size structure down to the legal length limit.
The report goes on to state that if angler harvest is having a negative influence on the walleye fishery, the population trend would be one of declining numbers. However, fall electro-shocking surveys conducted over the past 21 years actually indicate an escalating walleye population. Similarly, the trend of walleyes 15 inches and larger, as well as 20 inches and larger, is also on the rise, at an even greater rate than the general walleye population. This would indicate that there are plenty of legal walleyes for anglers to catch throughout the Susquehanna River.
There is finally good news coming from Pymatuning Lake. During the past several years, there had been a poor return from the annual fry stockings used to maintain the big lake's walleye population. Though the Fish and Boat Commission hasn't yet been able to determine the cause of this relatively recent stocking failure, it has made adjustments to its stocking efforts. Last fall, electro-shocking efforts revealed the best young-of-the-year return in several years. (Continued)
In combination with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, which also helps manage fish populations in this border lake, last spring, the agencies each stocked over 290,000 1-inch fingerlings. The commission also stocked over 4 million quarter-inch walleye fry.
When the lake was surveyed last fall, the commission collected young-of-the-year walleyes at a rate of 0.56 per minute, a significant improvement over recent years, including 2007's rate of 0.28 per minute and 2006's 0.13 per minute.
In 2008, yearling walleyes averaged 8 inches in length. Given the fast growth rate in Pymatuning's fertile waters, it's expected the '08 fish will attain legal (15-inch) length by 2010.
Both the PFBC and the ODOW are committed to Pymatuning's walleye fishery, and plan to continue fingerling stocking for the next several years, providing they can raise adequate numbers of them.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, the Youghiogheny River Lake will continue to be stocked with walleyes, even though natural reproduction may well provide all the walleyes this somewhat infertile body of water is able to support.
"We feel there is suc
cessful walleye spawning in the river section feeding the lake, and also along the lake shores," said Rick Lorson, the agency's biologist responsible for managing the fisheries in the southwestern portion of the state. "A number of years ago there was concern expressed by anglers from that area regarding a problem with walleye reproduction: that there may be missing year classes."
Lorson noted Youghiogheny's water chemistry limits the total amount of fish life it can support. The commission uses a measurement of fertility -- parts of alkalinity per million -- to determine a lake's carrying capacity. The infertile substrate of the Youghiogheny River valley upstream of the lake limits its ability to buffer the negative effects of acid mine drainage and acid rain that enter Youghiogheny Lake. Though water quality has improved over the past 20 years, the lake's alkalinity level has consistently measured below 20 ppm, the minimum concentration level where the agency considers a lake moderately fertile.
According to Lorson, in response to public concerns, in 2002 the Fish and Boat Commission began stocking fry- and fingerling-stage walleyes chemically marked with oxytetracycline in the Youghiogheny on an annual basis.
Though widely used as an antibiotic to treat numerous bacterial infections in humans, OTC can also be used to "tag" fish. The marking takes place by immersing the fish in an OTC solution in the hatchery before stocking. OTC binds to calcium and magnesium found in fish. In walleyes, this binding occurs on the otolith, bony structures of which three pairs are found in walleyes, directly behind the brain. Under microscopic examination, cross-sections of the otolith from successfully marked fish display bright yellow or chartreuse rings.
However, the walleyes stocked in Youghiogheny in recent years were not successfully marked. Lorson says the research on the marking process took place in a soft-water hatchery. The commission's walleye hatcheries -- Linesville and Pleasant Mountain -- both have hard water.
"We learned that in a hard water environment the oxytetracycline is not taken into the fish, rather it is bound up in the water," explained Lorson. "The high level of marking we had hoped for did not occur. The amount of information (regarding the percentage of stocked fish in the current population) just didn't happen."
Though managers were not able to determine the role stocking played in the present Youghiogheny walleye population, he said that given the lake's low fertility, survival of stocked fish might have been at the expense of wild fish.
"There's only room for so many walleyes in that water body, regardless of how many go in," Lorson said. "Even if we had the marked fish, it might be difficult to tell the true picture of what's coming out of there. But based on our recent trap net survey results, it suggests that stocking has not improved the overall walleye population."
Lorson also said the survey showed the total walleye abundance as being below its historical average, but not significantly so. When compared with the prior survey, conducted in 1998, a higher percentage of young year-classes (ages 2 through 5) were present in that survey, as compared with the work done last year.
Despite signals that walleye stocking will not elevate Youghiogheny's walleye numbers in light of the tagging failure, the commission intends to continue to stock fingerling-stage walleyes at an increased rate over the next several years. Modifications to the marking process will be made so that tagging is successful.
Lorson said trap net work will occur in a few years, and that fall electro-shocking work may take place sooner to evaluate the level of young-of-the-year fish, an indicator of production from the previous spring.
With all this in mind, here's a look at some of the better inland waters across the state to drop a line or two for all marble-eyes this season:
Even though the poor return on stocked walleyes has the lake's walleye density down, there are still fish to catch, particularly early in the spring when they are concentrated.
Last year's spring netting on the lake produced nearly 800 walleyes, the majority of which were in the mid-20-inch range. Spread out over the lake's 16,000 acres, the present population can make for some slow fishing. But when the fish are schooling in shallow water during the spring spawn, the action can be good for anglers that know how to target these fish. And fishing during the spring spawn is permissible on Pymatuning.
The most consistent walleye action will take place soon after the ice leaves the lake. Trolling shallow-running stick baits around gravel-rocky shorelines will produce the most fish.
Often, the best fishing is after the sun goes down. Key in on depths of four feet or less and keep trolling speeds modest, at 1.5 mph or less.
For anglers who remember the days in the 1980s when the lake was full of walleyes (albeit sub-legal fish), Pymatuning's present situation can be frustrating.
The time-honored tactic of wind drifting a jig-'n-minnow across the lake, so effective on juvenile, competitive walleyes, just doesn't produce. But for anglers willing to change their approach and fish during the peak times, there are some nice fish to catch.
Pymatuning's motor limit was raised from 10 to 20 horsepower last year. The best boat launches on the Pennsylvania side are at Linesville, Snodgrass and Jamestown. Numerous other landings are available for smaller boats. There are also several other excellent ramps on the Ohio side of the lake.
Visiting anglers should contact the Crawford County Convention and Tourist Bureau at www.visitcrawford.org, or call (800) 332-2338 for additional information on the amenities of the area.
MIDDLE ALLEGHENY RIVER
The portion of the Allegheny River that flows from the outflow of Kinzua Dam down to the East Brady area provides over 100 miles of good walleye water. The best action takes place during the first couple of months of the season before warming water allows the fish to scatter, and before the year's new forage base is in full bloom.
Fall river surveys by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have revealed good year-classes in 2005 and 2007. The 2005 year-class of fish will be of legal length this season. Coupled with older fish from previous year-classes, the outlook is a good one on the middle portion of the river.
When the early May opener arrives, expect some walleyes to still be in slower, deeper pools, recovering from their recent spawning efforts. As the water warms, walleyes will move into faster current areas. Such fish can be taken by working lead-headed swimbaits across the heavy current areas.
Good access areas along the river include Starbrick, Tionesta, Oil City, Franklin, Emlenton and Parker.
e services for the northern portion of the middle Allegheny can be arranged by logging onto www. alleghenyguideservice.com; or for the southern stretch, visit www.keystone connection.com.
The Oil Region Alliance can also offer help for the visiting angler. Visit www.oilregion.org for information.
Covering 1,600 acres, Glendale Lake is a good choice for both western and central Pennsylvania anglers. It has provided a strong walleye population for nearly two decades, maintained by the aggressive stocking of walleye fingerlings by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Unlike many inland lakes, Glendale doesn't have a forage base consisting of pelagic species like alewives or gizzard shad. Waters with these open-water baitfish often require anglers to revert to trolling tactics to catch walleyes roaming the open-water areas in search of food. It's nice to catch walleyes jiggin' and riggin', which is what most anglers do on Glendale.
Glendale Lake is especially productive during May and early June. Walleyes will hold in secondary creek channels as well as up in the Slate Lick arm of the lake. Fish may be taken working jigs along deeper structure, while shallow fish will be caught pulling night crawler harnesses behind bottom-bouncing sinkers, or by drifting the shallows with a floating jighead rig.
A state park lake (within Prince Gallitzin State Park), Glendale has a 20-horsepower motor limit. Boat rentals are available at the marina. The best boat launches are at the marina and at Wyreroch Bay (near the causeway).
Check out www.dcnr.state.pa.us for more information on the lake.
Like the middle Allegheny to the west, the Susquehanna River -- including portions of the West Branch as well as the North Branch and main stem -- provide excellent walleye angling.
For the first month to six weeks of the season, some of the most consistent fishing will occur below the power dams south of Harrisburg, such as York Haven, Safe Harbor and Holtwood. The evening bite can be good as fish move into the plume of current below the dams to feed.
Casting Rapala-style twitch baits from an anchored boat can be quite productive.
In addition to the waters listed, other good choices include the Ohio River, Rose Valley Lake, Shenango River Lake and Lake Wilhelm.
The state's inland walleye season opens May 2. The limit is six fish with a minimum length of 15 inches.
For additional information, visit the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Web site at www.fish.state.pa.us.