THE TALE of Lake Erie's rapidly shifting ecology is familiar to every angler by now: Fertility is plummeting, stocks of forage fish -- mostly rainbow smelt -- are seriously stressed, and walleye and perch seem to be declining.
But to the 75 representatives of fishing clubs gathered Friday at the annual "State of the Lake" conference called by Assemblyman Fran Pordum, D-Blasdell, there was some interesting and hopeful news.
And even a good tip for catching more walleye: fish at night.
Last week, in a separate forum, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission meeting in Buffalo agreed to manage Lake Erie as a "mesotrophic" lake aimed at maximum production of perch and walleye. These are not only the two most valuable fish for Ontario's 200 commercial netters, but favorite targets of sports anglers, too.
On Friday, Bob Lange, who heads the Department of Environmental Conservation's Great Lakes program, suggested that might be difficult.
"In the 1960s, Lake Erie was eutrophic, or overly fertile," he said. "Clean water initiatives were aimed at taking out phosphorous, which is fertilizer -- except here it grows fish. Too much phosphorous generates too much green algae.
"By the early 1980s, we had accomplished our clean-water goals and the lake was mesotrophic -- or of medium fertility. When the zebra mussel hit five years ago, we saw the lake become oligotrophic -- clear and virtually barren of the phytoplankton that are the basis of the food web."
Besides filtering out plankton, which hurts smaller fish that in turn feed the ones we fish for, the mussel-cleared water also sends walleye deeper, said Don Einhouse of the DEC's Dunkirk research station. He thinks that the clarity also allows walleye to see and evade the nets used for his annual survey trawls.
"Walleye like to feed at dusk and after dark," Einhouse said. "They are adapted to that, and creel surveys have always shown that bright, midday catches are always lower."
With water now clearer than at any time in history, walleye anglers had better plan on night fishing if they want to supply a fish fry -- especially in the spring, when the fish are near shore, Einhouse suggested.
He also outlined the DEC effort to re-establish local stream spawning populations of walleye.
"This will not increase the supply of fish -- which we believe is actually quite stable -- but we hope to prevent the wide fluctuation in spawning success characteristic at this end of the lake."
Thus, 3.2 million fry were stocked in Cattaraugus Creek to bolster the spawning population there and 800,000 more in Little Sister Creek -- in a bid to establish a spawning population in that creek.
"We also took six ripe adults, implanted them with radio transmitters and placed them in Buffalo Creek," Einhouse said. "We know walleye imprint on spawning grounds, but do not know if they do this as fry or as adults.
"The six walleye stayed for two weeks, probably spawning, and then went to deep water. In a few weeks we hope to overfly the lake and see if these fish are returning to Buffalo."
New York plans to shift its salmonid effort significantly, too, said Bill Culligan, who heads the Dunkirk station. "The lake is telling us it wants to be a lake trout and rainbow trout lake," he said. Laker stocking will be cut 40 percent in line with the lower fertility and new management goals. "But we think we have seen our first naturally spawned laker Erie and thanks to lamprey control, we now have a lot of fish of spawning age out there."
But the best news may be smallmouth bass.
"Smallmouths spawn everywhere along the lake shore and they are doing great," Culligan said. "I am still amazed at the lack of angling pressure for bass -- everywhere else in New York it's a prime target, but here it's almost ignored."