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LARGE SCHOOLS ARRIVED EARLY AND ARE STAYING LATE

Walleye did everything but fly over eastern Lake Erie this summer.

And the catch rate continues for trollers who can get into and ahead of these moving schools of 'eyes.

Ask Ken Podger and Al Zabelski about early-fall prospects for walleye. The Hamburg pair didn't like the dense bait schooling they saw off Cattaraugus Creek last week so they headed west of Dunkirk Harbor in search of moving (bait-starved) schools. What they found in open waters were sonar screens clear of bait schools and hungry walleye feeding at 75 feet in 90- to 120-foot depths.

"We found them west of Pomfret off Brocton Shoals and used down rigs to set chartreuse worm harnesses at their feeding depths," Podger said.

The chartreuse finish got all but one of the 14 fish they hooked early that morning. "Those fish are moving, really chasing the bait," he said.

Typically, walleye move east each spring after spawning in the shallower expanses of Lake Erie's western basin. Cool springs and early summers in 1996 and 1997 kept the main schools of Ohio fish in western waters well into the summer. In general, the first waves of western walleye begin showing along the Canadian shoreline east of Long Point and move into Buffalo-area waters from deeper waters along the New York/Ontario line.

Boaters out of Barcelona, Dunkirk, Cattaraugus Creek and usually Sturgeon Point can connect with these migrating walleyes sometime in mid- to late June. If not, Buffalo-based boaters have to rely on a resident population of fish that didn't materialize through last spring and early summer.

The major payback came in both the size and number of schools of walleye which appeared in New York waters early this season. Entrants in the Southtowns Walleye Tournament had to do some hunting, but the big fish were in before June was ripped from the calendar. Early July saw not only the big Ohio schools, which Ontario Province biologists believe are mainly female fish, but a good number of mid-sized and smaller fish in the 15- to 22-inch range. Closer to Buffalo, 'eyes measuring either side of the legal 15-inch limit still school around Myer's Reef in good numbers. These are the resident population of 1996 year class of fish Bill Culligan, supervisor of the DEC Lake Erie Unit at Dunkirk, says was solid. He sees this season as above average for this decade.

"It won't rival 1988 or 1989, but it's been a good year for walleye, better than last year for both catches and total effort," he said.

As for natural production, Lake Erie Unit surveys indicate the 1997 year class was below moderate but 1996 was good and 1998 looks as if it's going to be a good one. "As a rule, walleye hatches have been best during a late, cold winter," Culligan said. "But this season we've already seen a surprising number of young-of-the-year showing now, fish that we don't usually see until later in our studies."

The focus still remains on this year's catches. Mature migrant fish have not left New York waters. Herb Schultz picked a 9.75-pound 'eye off the bottom with a chartreuse worm harness Sunday. Dick Herd is still putting together purple- or watermelon-bladed worm harnesses for sizable stragglers off Cattaraugus Creek. Fall arrived Wednesday, but big walleye continue to feed in Lake Erie's Western New York waters.

Inland lake walleye fishing rarely requires Lake Erie rigs and depths, but the better catches come in when anglers fine tune their presentations. Oneida Lake, known since the invention of the outboard motor as a worm or jig fishery, has become a high-tech troller's fishery. Since the arrival of zebra mussels about five years ago, water clarity has sent light-sensitive 'eyes into the weeds or down to the deepest holes -- rarely more than 50 feet -- at the center of the lake. Fish that once worked the shallows for small minnows, crayfish and bug life now cruise open-water depths and feed on larger minnows. Hence, the increase in rig trollers at Oneida each summer. Today, bait shops display thin-bodied spoons or harness rigs where once panels of jigs were on display.

Honeoye, Conesus and Silver Lake have one walleye technique in common: The fish bite best in the shallows before morning light hits the water surface. Trollers tug worm rigs, often just a huge nightcrawler, along bottom off weed lines to tease walleye. Evenings can be as good, if the bass don't take over the weed edge, says Mike Sharp at Honeoye Bait and Tackle.

Chautauqua Lake perhaps draws the greatest variety of walleye anglers throughout the entire season -- the first Saturday in May until March 15. Spring and early summer walleye fishing was good for experienced troller and casters at both ends of the lake. However, summer numbers were down, sparking the ongoing debate between anglers and weedcutters about the loss of good fish cover around the lake. A recent increase in catch rates in DEC surveys around the lake has helped spark renewed interest in the adult walleye population, which biologists peg at about 150,000.

Get out the archery and gun hunting equipment, but don't pack away reliable walleye gear yet.

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