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Outdoors by Will Elliott: Why and where walleye come and go

An Angler Outreach program at Woodlawn Beach State Park on Tuesday evening provided fisher folk and all interested in the Lake Erie and upper Niagara River aquatic environment with valuable, interesting information.

Walleye fishing and catching varies each warm-weather season in the New York waters of Lake Erie.

Western New York anglers for decades have held a fixed belief that Lake Erie’s schools of mature walleye reside in the western basin through the fall, winter and spring spawning seasons and then migrate eastward to feed in deeper, bait-filled eastern waters.

Bait dealers, charter boaters and savvy Erie ‘eye-catching regulars often have put a fixed date, or at least a narrow time-frame window, on when fish from Port Clinton in Ohio and Point Pelee in Canada arrive in waters from Barcelona Harbor to Buffalo.

But migrating walleye never seem to arrive at the exact same time each year, and school movement varies in both depths and distances from shore. Last year the Department of Environmental Conservation became involved in a walleye telemetry study to determine more precisely where and when these fish move from the west each year.

“Surprisingly, we saw instances of fish from eastern waters located in points well west,” senior aquatic biologist Jason Robinson said.

The study begins with placing receivers in line across the lake bottom at key sites. Fish are implanted with an internal transmitter and an orange, 4-inch tag is placed at the base of the walleye’s dorsal fin. Air tanks are inflated to retrieve receivers at the end of the study in November.

In 2015, 310 walleye were tagged and implanted in the Western Basin. Robinson reported that 29 of those fish moved across receivers in the Eastern Basin during the course of the summer and early fall. Of the fish recorded, 27 made it into Barcelona Harbor waters; only five fish went all the way to Buffalo-area waters.

“This showing of only 9 percent might not seem like an impressive count but, based on the total number of walleye in Lake Erie, this number represents a possible two million fish migrated east into Western New York waters in 2015,” Robinson noted.

He added that all walleye charted were larger fish measuring more than 26 inches and mostly female. As for migratory direction, 43 percent of walleye tagged locally were caught in western waters.

Robinson and other biologists at the Lake Erie Unit in Dunkirk have been seeking anglers capable of bringing in live walleye that can be surgically implanted, tagged and released strong enough to survive and take their migratory routes around Lake Erie. The unit will continue this implanting program until mid-July.

Anglers who catch these implanted fish are asked to bring them to the Lake Erie Unit to retrieve the transmitter. Successful anglers are given a $100 reward for their efforts. To cooperate in catching live walleye for implanting and for details on how to bring in a fish with a transmitter, call the unit at 366-0228.

Senior aquatic biologists Chris Legard and Jim Markham noted that telemetry studies have begun or are in the planning stages for lake sturgeon, muskellunge, steelhead trout and lake trout.

River upgrade

Tim DePriest, DEC habitat ecologist, has been involved in several projects to upgrade the upper Niagara River. DePriest thanked Niagara Musky Association volunteers for not only cooperating in musky surveying, but for infrastructure work on Strawberry Island, Unity (formerly “Squaw”) and other river-habitat structure projects that provide food and cover for fish and bird life in the river.

“Our Strawberry Island project is underway from last year, but we have had to hold off on its completion until a bald eagle has finished its nesting on the island,” DePriest said of this ongoing project.

The project includes placing large boulders along outer corridors and at the base of current around the island. These structures will help retain growth above ground and allow for greater aquatic plant life to thrive in the shallows, providing cover and food for fish and bird life.

“For this reason, we are closing access to the inner/horseshoe waters of the island this year,” he said. Boat traffic, especially personal watercraft propulsion, is harmful to emerging plant growth.

Unity Island has an area of land down current that provides little use to fish and wildlife. A berm and water-passage structures will create more aquatic habitat when completed. For more information about upper-river programs and about volunteering in these improvement projects, check with DePriest at 851-7004.