Several productive year-classes of fish mean that Lake Erie's great walleye fishing will continue to improve. Here's where to find 'eyes in Ohio and Pennsylvania this month. (July 2008)
Photo by Mike Bleech.
"It looks like this is going to be another great year for walleye fishing on Lake Erie." Anglers never get tired of hearing that! Fishing success follows the cycles of reproduction success. Following a few discouraging years in the late 1990s, we are now riding good 2001 and '03 year-classes in a promising cycle.
Kevin Kayle is the aquatic biology Supervisor at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife's Fairport Fisheries Station.
According to him, 2008 should be a relatively good year.
"The 2003 year-class in the lake continues to grow. Fish that people were catching last year measured between 19 and 23 inches. They're growing now to the point where they're going to be 23 to 26 inches by the end of the summer."
The 2001 year-class added many walleyes to the fishery. But as Kayle pointed out, they'll be 7 years old and starting to fade into the sunset a little bit.
"The 2003 year-class is real strong," he said, "and we'll be fishing on this one for a long time."
Still, that 2001 year-class will be providing some trophy walleyes for a few years more. And a respectable 2005 year-class will be entering the fishery this summer, when they'll have reached 15 inches in length.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Where to fish for walleyes in Lake Erie is a two-part challenge -- both horizontally and vertically.
"Fish distribution in summer is going to depend a lot on water temperature, currents in the lake and where the forage fish are," Kayle said. "During the summer when walleyes move through the central basin, they're generally chasing shiners and smelts. Those fish will be found just in or above the thermocline."
This is the vertical aspect of walleye location: determining how deep to run your lures.
In the central basin, according to Kayle, the thermocline typically sets up at depths of 45 to 60 feet. In the western basin, there is very little deep water. There, the water temperatures get so warm that bait and huge numbers of walleyes migrate eastward.
This affects the horizontal aspect of walleye location, as does the "dead zone" factor.
Dead zones that occur in the lower part of the thermocline in the central basin can be major factors that sometimes influence walleye location. These dead zones sometimes push huge schools of walleyes eastward, often as far as the eastern basin.
"Depending on how hot and dry the summer is, and if it's relatively calm, the dead zone is low in oxygen," Kayle said. "Or for even a brief period, it has no oxygen."
Dead zones are usually caused by algae blooms. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom. There, it is consumed by bacteria that rob the water of oxygen.
"The more algae we have growing out there, the worse the problem is," Kayle said.
Throughout the summer, dead zones and the generally warming water in Lake Erie's western half push walleyes eastward. While anglers may still find good walleye fishing for out of the Port Clinton area and from the Sandusky area, mobile fishermen tend to move eastward as well.
In the extreme eastern edge of Ohio -- roughly from Ashtabula eastward and in western Pennsylvania -- walleye hotspots are influenced by different factors.
Water exchange, via currents between the central basin and the eastern basin, tends to attract forage fish, which in turn attract walleyes.
This area on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border usually offers some of the best summertime walleye fishing. Boaters launch out of Ashtabula and Conneaut in Ohio, and from the Walnut Creek Access in Pennsylvania.
The really serious fishermen carry fishing licenses for both states.
This area, lying near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, has some of the more interesting bottom structure west of the Lake Erie islands area.
Whereas most of the central basin has a bowl-like structure, here there is more irregularity. Last summer, plenty of walleyes could be caught by trolling in depths of 26 feet to 55 feet -- relatively shallow water -- within a few miles of shore. But hard-core walleye fishermen knew that at times, going out farther into the "First Trench" or to the "Second Trench" resulted in catches that often included larger walleyes. It's not uncommon for boats launching from Ohio ports to have to run more than 20 miles to reach the better fishing.
The irregular structure near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border forms the eastern end of the central basin.
Approximately north from Presque Isle and the city of Erie, the eastern basin holds the deepest water in Lake Erie, dropping to a maximum depth of about 210 feet.
Moving eastward from Erie, the bottom drops rapidly. At the North East Marina -- the easternmost Lake Erie boat access in Pennsylvania -- the lake can reach depths of 100 feet within about four miles of shore.
Through this area the dominant structure is called "The Mountain." It rises just slightly as it moves away from shore, and then drops very steeply into the depths.
On the east side of Lake Erie, two distinctly different walleye populations become more evident:
€¢ A local population, which tends to inhabit the shallower water inside The Mountain, and
€¢ Another population that migrates from the western basin and generally inhabits deeper water outside The Mountain.
For the past couple of summers, most boaters have fished inside The Mountain, where locating fish was easier. But those relatively few boaters who ventured outside The Mountain often caught larger walleyes.
In the eastern basin, there is no lack of oxygen below the thermocline, so walleye are often are scattered at different depths. Some days they can be caught at 30 feet or 100 feet on the same troll.
The walleye population is distrib
uted by age, in a fashion similar to walleye distribution anywhere else in Lake Erie. There are a very strong 2003 year-class and good year-classes in '05 and in '01.
There's also a moderate year-class from 1996 that will be providing some trophy walleyes this summer.
SUMMERTIME WALLEYE FISHING TACTICS
Tactics for summertime walleye fishing on Lake Erie usually involve trolling. Various methods are used, including flatlining, planer boards, downrigging and snap weights.
Perhaps most effective of all is trolling with Dipsy Divers and similar devices.
The most popular lures go through cycles. Several years ago, before the lake became clearer, stick baits were very popular. In the western basin, many walleye anglers drifted while casting weight-forward spinners.
Then as the water cleared up, spoons gained in popularity. When clarity reached its peak, night-crawler harnesses became the most productive for midsummer trolling.
Boaters launch out of Ashtabula and Conneaut in Ohio, and from the Walnut Creek Access in Pennsylvania. The really serious fishermen carry fishing licenses for both states.
That has changed somewhat -- due most likely to an improved walleye population. Serious walleye trollers are now using all three types of lures, including stick baits, spoons and night-crawler harnesses.
Capt. Pete Alex, a very successful guide working out of Erie, uses mostly spoons.
"At certain times, starting about the end of June to the end of September, I run some plugs," he said. "But I run 80 percent spoons."
His reasoning is simple, starting with personal preference. Also, he likes the advantages of color variations that spoons provide.
Night crawlers can be a bother. "You have to go to the bait shop to get them," he said, "and you've got to maintain them.
"Another problem is that night crawlers attract a lot of junk fish."
Among the hot colors over the past two or three summers have been watermelon, blueberry muffin and monkey puke. This includes color patterns for both spoons and harness spinner blades.
For Lake Erie fishing information in Pennsylvania, contact VisitErie, 208 East Bayfront Parkway, Suite 103, Erie, PA 16507. You can also log onto www.Visit Erie.com, or call 1-800-524-3743.
In Ohio, travel information is available through the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism, P.O. Box 1001, Columbus, OH 43216-1001. Or telephone 1-800-BUCKEYE.
In Ohio, phone 1-888-HOOK-FISH to reach the Ohio Division of Wildlife's fishing hotline.