One usually reliable sign of the beginning of warm-water fishing each spring has been the crowds of anglers from Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania who converge on Chautauqua Lake just after ice-out for abundant catches of crappies (calico bass).
For decades, the Chautauqua crappie fishing had drawn anglers from their winter doldrums for what typically had been an assured "easy" harvesting of a most palatable panfish.
But during the past three or four spring seasons, there has been a steady decline in the number of crappies taken by both casual and expert crappie anglers.
Of the many causes for the loss of these valuable panfish, senior aquatic biologist Paul McKeown points to the indelicate balance created by the combination of an increase in the number of walleye -- a major predator of young-of-the-year crappie -- and the increased removal of weed growth, chemically and mechanically, in the past decade.
McKeown's stomach sampling studies of walleye during the summer months indicate that the walleye have been targeting unprotected crappie as soon as the yellow perch -- the walleye's primary forage in Chautauqua Lake -- have been heavily reduced. With the weed protection removed, the young crappie population becomes vulnerable.
A two-year moratorium has been imposed on weed removal (1988-89) so that the Department of Environmental Conservation and biologists at Fredonia State can conduct an "Aquatic Vegetation Management Plan." Steve Mooradian, DEC regional manager for the Chautauqua Lake area, is awaiting the results of this study to assess the impact of weed removal on sport fishing and other recreational uses of the lake.
In the meantime, fishery observers have noticed an abundance of young crappie appearing as the weeds are permitted to grow. At the same time, excessively large crappie (too large for walleye to feed upon) remain in the waters.
Edwin Paine of Jamestown would not complain about only larger crappie in the lake. Paine won the Crappithon team event on May 13 for the largest fish with a 16 1/2 -inch, 2.29-pound crappie. The fish garnered $1,151 for him and his partner, Ken Evans, also of Jamestown.
The two men also collected another $100 because their fish was heavy enough to qualify them for a 17th-place finish in the total weigh-in. The winning team of Eugene "Skip" Bianco of Falconer and Ray Stern of Kennedy only needed 13 fish to amass the heaviest total weight (12.94 pounds) for a 20-fish entry. Though scant in numbers, each fish averaged nearly one pound apiece. Clearly, the lake is not void of crappies.
While study results are not in as yet, Art Carlson, boat livery operator on Chautauqua Lake for 42 years, observes, "The abundance of fry from last year's hatch is overwhelming."
Carlson believes once the weeds are allowed grow, the fish will come back the way they were five years ago.
In two or three seasons, perhaps the once-numerous Chautauqua crappies will again become the Western New York fishermen's first sign of spring.