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STATE OF THE LAKE: WALLEYE NUMBERS DWINDLE

New years come and go, but new features (creatures) and changing conditions (ecology) have become routine for Lake Erie and the anglers who look forward to fishing its waters each year.

Lake Erie produces more fish, in numbers and mass weight, than all other Great Lakes combined. Yet it is the shallowest in depth and smallest Great Lake in volume of water.

Sport fishermen on Lake Erie have always had an abundance of one or more species to draw anglers back to the lake each year. When blue pike disappeared, yellow perch and later walleye began showing in great numbers. Today, perch are scarce and walleye numbers have dwindled since the early 1990s.

At the Lake Erie State of the Lake Program, a recent seminar series offering a variety of insights on the lake, two speakers, in particular, offered information of use to anglers heading out onto Lake Erie waters in 1998: Larry Halyk, management biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Capt. Dan Dietzen of Dunkirk, pioneer in modern, suspended-walleye fishing techniques and tactics in New York waters.

Halyk dispelled much of the uneasiness New York walleye fishermen have about those fish in Canadian waters, where commercial fishing is still allowed for walleye and perch. "Catch reports for commercial vessels have totaled less than the volume of fish caught by sport fishermen in Ontario for the past five years," Halyk said.

The reduced numbers of walleye seen in Western New York waters of Lake Erie in 1997 also paralleled a reduction in commercial fishing in Canadian waters at the east end of the lake. Walleye catch reports were lower in '97 than in '96, he said, and the commercial boats began moving west as the summer of 1997 progressed, opening most eastern basin waters to walleye in the fall. The major problem was the lack of walleyes moving east in 1997, as they had in great numbers in 1996.

Halyk reported poor returns of pond-raised walleye stocked in Canada's Grand River. Biologists are still studying that program. The better fishing production of late has been rainbow trout in and around the Grand River. "Rainbow catches were up this past summer. At times, boaters were catching more rainbow trout than walleye in the Canadian waters of the Central Basin," he said.

Halyk said bass and muskie fishing, similar to fishing reports from New York waters, have gained in popularity. Ontario decision-makers are considering a trophy bass season for Lake Erie similar to the New York early bass season. They also are looking at raising the length limit for muskellunge from 37 inches to 44 inches, the limit set in New York State.

Dietzen began his discussion of Lake Erie fishing with the comment, "1997 was a humbling season for me." Dietzen had abandoned his late summer chartering on Lake Ontario in 1996 because of the spectacular year he had on walleyes off Dunkirk Harbor. Limit catches were all but guaranteed every day he could get his boat out into open waters.

His '97 catches at times were early-morning limits of five fish per angler, but he also had many of what he called "weaker days." He said, "there's still pockets of fish (walleye) out there, but not widespread. You have to travel to find them."

But what Dietzen meant by "travel" was not necessarily miles from shore but walleye-holding places up and down the shoreline. "Many times the guys would drive past me to get to 100 feet or more while I was catching a limit of walleye over 77 feet of water," he remarked.

His trolling program, though less fruitful in 1997, got him more fish per day than most charter boaters and steady sport fishing 'eye chasers.

Dietzen's list of tips surprised many of the seasoned veteran walleye trollers. He got more hits when trolling slower in the steadily clearing waters. Most theorists would presume a faster troll would give fish less time to recognize the artificial lure.

He would vary depths on the planer board, placing weights (usually 1 to 4 ounces) behind a Jet Diver to get the lures down to different depths. Also, he ran shorter lines than in previous years. "I only ran the lines back to 140 feet and went with 15- pound test lines last year," he said. Most trollers have been running lines out 200 feet or more to compensate for the clear waters.

He also went with Renosky lures, a floating, minnow-type lure behind the jet divers. Black and purple seemed to work best mornings; blue in the afternoons; green bodies got strikes all day long.

Walleye fishing in 1998, as it has been for more than two decades, depends on the arrival of western basin fish in Western New York waters. If perch and walleye numbers remain down, anglers in Canadian and New York waters might resort to two gamey and abundant target species this coming season: smallmouth bass and muskellunge.

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