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Banner year projected for Lake Erie’s warm- and cold-water fisheries

“The best is yet to come, and won’t that be fine,

You think you’ve seen the sun, but you ain’t seen it shine.” – Frank Sinatra, “Best is Yet to Come”

 Leave it to old “blue eyes” to help us convey what came out of the State of Lake Erie meeting held last week courtesy Helen Domske and NY Sea Grant at the Southtowns Walleye Association’s clubhouse in Hamburg. Anglers, get your rods and reels ready … the best is yet to come.

It’s hard to believe that fishing could be any better than it was last year as far as walleye fishing. According to the Lake Erie Unit’s open lake creel census in 2017, the walleye catch rate was the best in the 30-year history of the survey. A catch of nearly 120,000 walleyes and a harvest of 70,000 fish translated into a catch rate of roughly .5 walleye per angler hour. The next best year was 2014, when walleye chasers caught .32 fish per hour. And with the way things are looking for this year, catch rates could improve yet again if anglers get a little help from Mother Nature in the weather department.

Walleye estimates overall for 2018 are now slightly above the 41 million level for the western and central basins of the lake. These are the prime spawning areas that fisheries' managers concern themselves with most. That’s a lot of fried fish fillets. Some of you loyal readers might recall the 2017 number as being 56

Helen Domske with NY Sea Grant.

million fish but that was recently adjusted to accommodate for commercial and recreational harvests and any natural die-offs that might occur in the lake. This is nothing unusual according to Dr. Jason Robinson, aquatic biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Unit.

Dr. Robinson shared a new video with the group that showcased the movement of walleyes around the lake in conjunction with the acoustic telemetry study underway. A significant number of walleyes make the trek from the western basin to the eastern basin every year. Every year brings them more important research.

Yellow perch populations are also calling out to anglers in 2018. Last year offered up both good and bad news for fishermen and women. Overall effort was down 66 percent and the catch rate was “only” 1.62 fish per hour – nearly two whole fish below the record rate in 2014. However, that 1.62 fish per hour was still better than the time series average of 1.43 fish per hour and the mean length for the 43,000 perch that were harvested last year was 11 inches  – among the biggest in the time series.

“We have had some great year classes of fish,” said Dr. Robinson. “The 2016 year classes of perch and walleye were both exceptional.  They will be 2 years old in 2018. We don’t formally assess walleye hatches until the following year at age 1.  However, we did capture eight age 0 walleye in 2017.  If we capture any age 0 walleye we consider it a very good sign.”

“Like walleye, the yellow perch age-0 index does not have a strong correlation with the eventual year class strength.  Sometimes relatively low catches of age 0 perch will result in a large year class and vice versa.  The 2017 age-0 perch index was slightly above average but I cannot say with confidence if that will ultimately translate into a strong or weak 2017 year class until the 2018 survey.  We are chiefly concerned with age groups that will soon be entering the fishery.  Walleye enter the fishery at age 2 (2016 hatch) and perch enter at age 3 (2015 hatch).”

The best news for perch fishers is that we now have three strong year classes that have been documented for 2014-2016 and we should experience a marked improvement this spring. Last fall’s September survey netting saw the highest juvenile catch rate (age 1 and age 2) fish ever and total numbers of perch for all year classes produced the fourth-highest catch per net since they have been utilizing this research. Yes, the best is yet to come.

James Markham with DEC talks about some of the positive changes that are being made for the trout fishing starting in 2018. Lake Erie tributary fishing for trout is some of the best in North America.

James Markham, aquatic biologist responsible for the cold-water fish communities within the Lake Erie Unit, also had some great things to pass along to the audience (estimated at some 200 fish-hungry attendees). The best news had to be for tributary trout anglers who were experiencing a resurgence of stream fish this year – perfect timing for a creel census that has been going on since September.

“The last creel study conducted in 2014-15 we were able to document a catch rate of .35 fish per hour,” said Markham. “While it’s not as high as the record year of .6 fish per hour, it still makes the Lake Erie tributaries one of the best trout fisheries in North America. We will probably see an uptick in catch rates from the current creel study.” The survey will end in mid-May.

DEC is also working on a Steelhead Stocking Strategy Study that should be completed in 2018. The agency is also working on tweaking the way it is doing business for trout anglers. For example, starting in 2018, DEC will no longer be stocking brown trout in Lake Erie. Instead, those fish will be replaced with domestic rainbows. The brown trout performed poorly. Markham felt that they would be better off stocking the same number of domestic rainbows to help bolster September and October streams runs of trout.

Markham covered a wide variety of topics, all designed to improve the quality and quantity of trout in the streams. For example, he spoke about an emigration study underway in Chautauqua Creek to determine the best trout stocking practices for survival and fish returns. He discussed the Scoby Dam project in Springville and gave everyone an update on what was happening with this Cattaraugus Creek project.

The lake trout was also discussed as part of a federal program designed to create self-sustaining populations in the Great Lakes. While they have not seen any natural recruitment in the nearly four decades that they’ve been stocked, biologists have started an acoustic telemetry study to determine laker movements. If they can figure out spawning sites where these fish once thrived, they might be able to help Mother Nature along.

There were two other speakers worthy of expanded coverage. One was Tom MacDougall with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Lake Erie Management Unit. The other was Dr. Jesse Lepak with NY Sea Grant talking about catch-and-release and barotrauma with fish after they are brought in from deep water. Both will make an interesting column. Is the best yet to come? We’ll have to wait and see.

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