Lake Erie is a significant fishery for anglers of this area, and its status is an important topic, particularly at this time, as folks contemplate plans for the coming year.
Recently I spoke with the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Jeff Tyson regarding the lake’s walleye and yellow perch. Tyson heads a research unit that assesses Lake Erie’s fish populations in the western and central basins. Many of the lake’s walleyes are hatched in the western basin; central basin waters start in eastern Ohio and extend to all of Pennsylvania’s portion of Erie.
WALLEYE: Dubbed the walleye capital of the world, walleye fishing is obviously a vital component of the big lake’s offerings. For many anglers the status of Erie’s fishing is directly linked to how good the walleye fishing is. According to Tyson, it was pretty good last season.
“Walleye fishing was pretty decent last year,” Tyson reported. “We ended up harvesting slightly over a million fish from Ohio waters, which is about average from what we’ve seen over the previous five years. We’ll have some years where it’s down, usually driven by weather, and some where it’s up a bit. But last year things were pretty much on par.”
Weather plays a big role in how walleye anglers fare. Not only can wild weather put down finicky fish like walleyes, it can make the lake unfishable. Particularly in the western basin, big wind and rain can turn the water to chocolate milk.
Though weather patterns are at the mercy of nature, there will be enough fish available to furnish anglers with the potential for good fishing.
“The 2003 year class will definitely still be out there, contributing about 30 percent of our total harvest, even though we’re over 10 years out on it,” he said. “That gives you a sense of just how large that year class was. We have some others, what we consider average hatches, as well, that are in the fishery right now. The 2007 year class, which is now about six years old, will contribute, as will the 2010 hatch. A lot of the guys were seeing a fair number of the ’10 fish last year, particularly in the western basin. Those fish were running in the 17-inch range, whereas the ’03 fish will run from 25 inches on up to 30 inches-plus.”
Erie’s inconsistent walleye hatches, though another item in the hands of nature, continues to be a source of puzzlement to fish managers. Poor, even absent year classes aren’t unusual in natural settings. But the situation seems magnified on Erie. Tyson said the DOW is studying the dilemma.
“Weather is still the primary factor that we feel is driving year class strength out there,” he noted. “We just wrapped up the third year of a three-year study — some fairly intensive work out on the reefs — paired with some additional work up in the rivers, looking at environmental conditions. We’re trying to better understand how weather impacts hatches on an annual basis. We don’t have any specific results back yet, but we should be getting some of that information summarized over the next year to year-and-a-half.”
YELLOW PERCH: Lake Erie might be the walleye capital of the world. But when the yellow perch are biting, walleyes often take a back seat to their smaller cousins. Parking lots fill with trailers when the perch are on; flotillas of boats — perch packs, if you will — exist as parking lots in their own right, ones parked over schools of fish, many of which warrant the “jumbo” label.
“In 2013 we had a fairly decent yellow perch as well,” Tyson recalled. “The size grade was better than we what we expected, particularly in the west end. As you go down farther east, from Ashtabula, Conneaut and on into Pennsylvania waters, the size grade was really good for perch. We had a really nice fishery for yellow perch.”
As with walleyes, Erie’s yellow perch fishery is dependent upon the strength of recent year classes. Though perch production sees ups and downs, this species doesn’t experience quite the same level of erratic hatches as do walleyes.
“I think it’s going to be another good year for perch,” Tyson noted. “We didn’t have a huge hatch last spring, particularly in the west, for yellow perch. It was about average. Those fish won’t show up in the fishery until next year. In the central basin last year’s hatch wasn’t as good. But they’ve had fairly consistent spawns in that portion of the lake, every other year, or at least every third year.”