Records were made to be broken. At least, that’s how the saying goes. However, walleye fishing in Lake Erie was literally at the top of its game again in 2017 after setting a new all-time mark in 2014. And with the way things are going in this Great Lake, don’t be surprised if it happens again this year. It’s scary … scary good.
Based on the Lake Erie creel census where thousands of anglers were surveyed between May 1 and Oct. 31, walleye fishermen experienced the highest catch per unit effort that the lake has ever seen in the 30 years of the census. In 2017, the catch rate was .52 fish per hour, nearly three times the 30-year average. While that might not seem like anything special, let’s put it into a better perspective.
“Our previous best-ever catch rate for walleye on Lake Erie was .32 fish per hour,” says Jason Robinson, fisheries biologist for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Lake Erie Unit. “That came in 2014 and that was a great fishing year. In fact it was our last record year. It was that much better last year.”
So let’s talk actual numbers. Over 70,000 walleye were harvested last year – caught and kept for the frying pan. It doesn’t get much better than fresh walleye in the hot oil (or no matter how it’s cooked). However, the Catch Per Effort (CPE) is based on the total catch and that was nearly 120,000 walleye last year.
“The massive increase in catch in 2017 was largely due to the number of sub-legal walleye caught early in the season,” said Robinson. To compare, in 2016 the catch was just over 60,000 walleye (almost half) and the harvest was nearly 51,000 fish - quite a difference.
Yes, fishermen knew that 2017 was exceptional. Why the sudden surge in walleye population levels and ultimately an unbelievable catch rate?
According to Robinson, of the five off-the-charts walleye recruitment events that have taken place in the lake in the last three decades, four of them are currently alive in the lake. The kicker that put things over the top was the 2015 class of walleye, one of the largest the lake has ever seen. In 2016, the walleye population of fish age 2 and older was estimated to be 31 million. Last year, those estimated numbers of age 2 and older walleye was 56 million fish. Incredible. And it should keep getting better as these fish continue to grow and mature.
The reason for the increase in natural reproduction is a perfect storm of conditions. “It’s a complicated interplay of spawning stock biomass, temperature and food availability,” says Robinson. “The conventional wisdom is that extremely cold winters produce good year classes of walleyes, but that is not a perfect indicator. We cannot always predict and we certainly can’t control when walleye will produce good year classes. And walleye year classes do not always produce uniformly around the lake.”
Due to environmental conditions in the lake, 2015 was a great year in the Western Basin of the lake. In the east, we had a very good year, too. The entire lake combined saw the walleye hatch as being exceptional. Other good year classes include hatches from 2010, 2012 and 2014. In 2016, New York waters appear to be supporting a very good class of fish as well. These are locally born fish that call our waters home. “This gives our anglers a certain measure of resiliency if the local population is strong too, filling in the gaps of the huge migratory school of fish that migrate their way east from the Western Basin starting in April.”
Thanks to an acoustic telemetry study that has been underway for several years, biologists and researchers have been following walleye migration around the lake. It has been determined that approximately 10 percent of the Western Basin population of walleye are making the trip to our end of the lake, making a significant impact to our fishery. “We have tagged 312 walleyes so far in New York,” says Robinson. “To date we have had 74 of the reward tags returned, paying out $100 for each tag.” There are at least 200 more of those prize fish swimming around the lake, with DEC planning on tagging another 50 this year.
Whether it’s to return an acoustic tag worth $100 or cooperating with the creel census agents, local anglers need to be involved with what’s happening in the lake. All of this is extremely important to the management of the resource.
Despite the record-high catch rate, fishing pressure in Lake Erie seems to have plateaued the last three years. “We should take advantage of this,” insists Robinson. “We have an incredible opportunity to bring new people in and start fishing.”
From a promotional standpoint there isn’t anything better. Coming off a super season that would make even the New England Patriots envious, this is the perfect time to enjoy some of the best walleye fishing in the country. Sitting pretty is the Southtowns Walleye Association of WNY, the largest walleye club in the country – but always looking for new members. Check out the organization at www.southtownswalleye.org and like them on Facebook. That should be step one.
Step two should be to fill your cranium with knowledge. You missed a great opportunity two weeks ago at the Greater Niagara Fishing Expo in Niagara Falls, but it’s still not too late to attend a few seminars at the upcoming WNY Sport and Travel Expo at the Erie County Fairgrounds March 8 to 11.
Step three should be to hire a charter captain. Figure out how you want to catch those fish – casting, trolling, bottom-bouncing, night fishing . . . whatever floats your boat so to speak. Even if you have your own boat this is a good idea because it can lead to a shortcut as to how and where you want to fish. Spend as much time on the water as you can. Nothing beats time on the water actually fishing.
If you think about it, these are the good old days. Get out there an enjoy them while you can. Take a friend or neighbor, a son or grandson, daughter or granddaughter, wife or girlfriend. Take advantage of these natural resources that surround us. It really doesn’t get any better than this.