The past 12 months, representing 2018 in New York, was an above average year overall in the great outdoors. At the top of the list was the incredible walleye fishing on Lake Erie and the phenomenal salmon fishing on Lake Ontario. It appears both were record-setting, but we’ll have to wait until the final results come in. There were 3 state record catches, too, for walleye, crappie and long nose gar.
Lake Erie is riding high on several very strong year classes of walleye that include 2015 and 2016. In addition, a recent announcement from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources stated that the walleye catch rate for the agency’s fall assessments of the 2018 hatch is the highest that they’ve seen in the last 20 years. After a record catch rate for anglers in 2017 in New York, we’re anticipating another record catch and harvest in 2018. In 2017, the catch rate was .52 fish per hour, nearly three times the 30-year average. The 2018 numbers are being worked on now.
“Our previous best-ever catch rate for walleye on Lake Erie was .32 fish per hour,” says Dr. Jason Robinson, the new Lake Erie Unit leader for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Unit. “That came in 2014 and it was a great fishing year. In fact, it was our last record year prior to 2017. It was that much better.” Robinson took over for Don Einhouse who retired this past August.
So, let’s talk actual numbers. Over 70,000 walleyes were harvested last year (2017). However, the Catch Per Effort (CPE) is based on the total catch and that was nearly 120,000 walleyes. “The massive increase in catch in 2017 was largely due to the number of sub-legal walleye caught early in the season,” said Robinson. In 2016, the catch was just over 60,000 walleyes (almost half) and the harvest was nearly 51,000 fish, quite a difference. This past year was another very similar scenario that saw lots of under-sized fish being caught by anglers, especially earlier in the season.
How long will the lake be able to sustain such prolific numbers? That seems to be the big question. There is concern over the status of the emerald shiner, with population levels at very low numbers. Walleyes will feed on just about anything – gobies, perch, smelt or whatever else is available. Right now it doesn’t appear to be a problem. However, can the lake sustain this pace to support the large numbers of bass, walleye, steelhead, lake trout, perch and muskellunge to name but a few?
On the flip side is Lake Ontario. This past year was the second straight year for a record catch rate based on an New York open lake creel census. The 2018 catch rate was over 200 percent more than the long term average through August and we can’t wait to see what the final results will reveal. While fishing for both salmon and trout was outstanding, as well, DEC has raised the red flag for the third year in a row regarding the lake’s forage base.
The problem stems from poor alewife hatches in 2013 and 2014, directly related to the severe winters Mother Nature threw at us during those years. Those depressed population levels have caused DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to react by initiating a modest stocking cut of Chinook salmon and lake trout in 2017 and 2018. Despite a record hatch of alewives in 2016 (assessed in the spring of 2017), the 2017 hatch (assessed in 2018) was only fair. Fish managers for the lake make the decision to cut back Chinook salmon by 40 percent and lake trout by 20 percent. Before we shout gloom and doom though, there are still significant numbers of pen-reared salmon along the lakeshore (giving a survival rate of better than 2 to 1 over direct stocked fish). In addition, there is still a potential for huge numbers of naturally reproduced salmon in places like the Salmon River and along the north shore of the lake. There could be as many as 50 percent of salmon in the lake naturally reproduced.
It was this unknown that helped DEC justify its decision. With fewer alewives in the lake, they needed to do something to reduce the predator numbers on fish that feed on these important baitfish. DEC does admit that they do not know how many predators are in the lake. They will be back to tagging every salmon in the lake starting in 2019 to help their research. The New York waters will still see more than a million Chinook salmon stocked in 2019. It should be a good year for 3-year-old kings.
There were quite a few record catches in the state this past year, showing off the quality of the Empire State’s fishery. Brian Hartman of Alexandria Bay reeled in an 18 pound, 2 ounce walleye from the St. Lawrence River to set the new state mark this year. Will Wightman of South Dayton caught the new record black crappie from Lake Flavia in Cattaraugus County, tipping the scales at 4 pounds, 1 ounce. And Mike Gatus of Hoosick Falls reeled in a new record long nose gar that weighed 14 pounds, 10 ounces and stretched 52-1/4 inches long from Lake Champlain. They were all impressive fish in anyone’s book.
The year started with another outstanding Greater Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Expo at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls. Over 120 seminars from 70-some speakers combined with over 170 vendors for the sold-out show. Believe it or not, the 2019 Expo (set for Jan. 18-20) will be even more spectacular with nearly 200 seminars, a new hawg trough and a new casting area to complement the sold-out vendor section. Check out www.niagarafishingexpo.com for details so far.
In the hunting arena, it looks like the deer harvest numbers will be up slightly from 2017. The Dec. 16, hunters reported taking 14 percent more deer in the Northern Zone (14,458) and 11 percent more in the Southern Zone (94,515) compared with the same time last year. Bear hunters took fewer bears in the Southern Zone (670 compared to 884 in 2017) but more in the Northern Zone 396 compared to 302 in 2017). It was a decent year for ducks and geese, too, but 2019 will be seeing a decline in mallard bag limits, as well as Canada goose limits in some areas. Speaking of ducks and geese, the later waterfowl opener was Dec. 26 – a great way to wind down 2018.
Here’s wishing everyone a happy new year!