It was a good location for Dr. Jason Robinson to announce that walleye fishing should be decent again in 2017 with some even better fishing yet to come in 2018 and beyond. He was proclaiming this to a room filled with diehard walleye anglers as the Southtowns Walleye Association (SWA) clubhouse was the host location in Hamburg for NY Sea Grant’s annual State of Lake Erie meeting. Robinson is warm-water biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit.
The public gathering has become a bit of a tradition with SWA, an event coordinated by Helen Domske, senior extension associate with NY Sea Grant (based out of the University at Buffalo). Every April, she partners with the DEC to give an update on what’s happening in this Great Lake as it pertains to the fishery and the ecosystem. This has been ongoing for 24 years, a tribute to the popularity lake. While there are plenty of fish species to chase in Lake Erie, the trilogy of angling pursuit is the walleye, yellow perch and black bass. Boat fishing effort is on the way back up again – led by the chase to catch the popular “yellow pike.”
“Angler catch rates for walleye were up slightly from 2015 but not as high as the record produced in 2014 when fishermen caught .35 walleye per hour,” said Robinson to a packed house. “The average size of a walleye caught in 2016 was 22 inches long. Strong walleye hatches from 2010 and 2012 will continue to support some excellent fishing in 2017. We are still seeing some impact from the huge hatch in 2003.”
There is more good news. It appears the 2015 walleye hatch in the Eastern Basin of the lake was strong. In the Western Basin, it was outstanding – one of the biggest ever. The age “0” fish (fish hatched in 2016) normally don’t even show up in the spring netting assessment off New York. The DEC does not gauge the success of a year class until age 1. They couldn’t ignore it last year. In 2016, they collected over 100 of these age “0” fish, meaning another strong hatch of ‘eyes (the most since 1984). Normally they only catch a handful of these smaller fish.
Thanks to an acoustic telemetry study that is currently underway, biologists are starting to determine what kind of an impact the Western Basin walleye has on the Eastern Basin of the lake. It has long been theorized that there is a large nomadic school of walleye that migrate east every year when the waters start to warm. What the actual trigger is remains undermined. After one year of studying the movement, biologists have estimated that as many as 10 percent of Western Basin ‘eyes may be heading east, giving local anglers an extra two million fish to play with and catch – from spring to fall.
If you catch a walleye with a loop tag on the back of the fish, you’ve just earned yourself $100. Inside the cavity of the fish, there is a small cylindrical tag that transmits the signal that is recorded by the many receivers that sit on the bottom of the lake. Just return the tag to earn your cash prize.
Yellow perch numbers and catch rates have declined since 2014, when the lake experienced a record catch rate. Last year, the average size of a perch was 11.2 inches. However, there is some good news on the horizon. According to Robinson, it appears that there are now three strong year classes in a row. The 2017 perch season should be similar to last year, but the age 3 perch should start making an impact this year, especially in the fall.
“These three strong year classes will make their way into the harvestable population in 2018, ’19 and ’20,” Robinson said. “Our netting survey last year showed the highest age “0” index ever with over 5,400 fish per acre – 10 times higher than the average. One trawl produced over 15,000 fish!” Yes, the future for yellow perch appears bright … after 2017.
In the black bass department, catch rates declined in 2016 but still remain relatively high at around .9 bass per hour of fishing. Only three percent of the bass caught last year were actually harvested. Robinson noted that 2016 was the first year that the decline was evident in the measure of angling quality.
While the future looks good for the warm water fisheries, the cold water fisheries are a bit more disconcerting. While lake trout have exhibited high abundance in recent years, 2016 saw the bottom drop out with a 57 percent decline in survey netting results.
“Sea lamprey woundings also increased last year,” said Jim Markham, cold-water biologist with the Lake Erie Unit. “Our target is five wounds per 100 lake trout and we were over 15 last year.”
Stocking numbers will also be down in 2017 due to problems at the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery located in Warren, Pa. A lake trout acoustic telemetry study is underway as of 2016 to follow laker movements, helping to identify key habitats preferred such as primary spawning areas. No wild fish have been documented as of this time.
Steelhead stocking and fishing activity remained relatively strong in 2016. Nearly two million steelhead were stocked in the lake, with 90 percent coming from New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. New York’s contribution was 250,000 fish. Tributary angler surveys show that catch rates for the lake remain among the highest in the country. While they are not as high as they were in the mid-2000s, catch rates were still around .4 fish per hour of effort – very good when compared with other waters.
One interesting bit of research is a Stocked Steelhead Emigration Study that is attempting to determine what is happening with some of the stocked fish. It appears that a good portion of the smaller trout being stocked do not emigrate out to the lake but instead swim upstream. This seems to be affecting survival rates. Highest returns have been from the larger-sized stocks. Results will affect future stocking practices in an effort to improve adult returns to the tributaries.
For more information on steelhead, check out the DEC’s Lake Erie Steelhead Management Plan at http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/lertmanageplan.pdf. For information on the 2016 DEC Lake Erie Annual Report, go to http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/2016lerpt.pdf.