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Outdoors column

Ohio's Lake Erie walleye action is setting records

Walleye fishing in the New York waters of Lake Erie has been nothing short of phenomenal. As we approach Labor Day and the autumn season, many of the walleyes arrived on the local fishing scene from Ohio in the spring and spent much of the summer here.

Now they are ready to begin their trek back to the Buckeye State. Only a small percentage of fish travel this far east to help bolster local walleye stocks here. What must it be like in Ohio?

Outdoor writer Rick Henniger, editor of the Ohio Fish and Field newspaper, invited Dr. John Syracuse of Newfane, Rick Hilts of North Tonawanda and me for a morning adventure with one of his charter captain friends, Capt. Dave Diver of Canfield, Ohio. This is the Central Basin of the lake, not the extreme Western Basin that is the fish factory for a lakewide walleye population that is estimated at around 45 million fish.

Diver is the owner and operator of Wrek-N-Eyes, running his 34-foot King Cat (a Catamaran with a 12-foot beam) out of Ashtabula. The name came from his passion for participating in demolition derbies.

“Get to the boat by 6 a.m.,” said Henniger. “We have to make the bridge.” He was referring to a lift bridge that dictated when boats could head into the lake, and it was right on time as we stepped on the boat a few minutes before 6.

John Syracuse with another Ashtabula walleye he reeled in during a recent fishing trip. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

As we motored into the lake, Diver didn’t need to go very far. It was less than 2 miles, in 58 feet of water. His Lowrance HDS 10 looked like it was on demonstration mode as fish marks were stacked on top of fish marks. It was all about efficiency for Diver, as he set No. 40 jet divers with Michigan Stinger Scorpion Spoons. The lead length was an arm and a half from jet to spoon, made of 17-pound fluorocarbon line. His main line was 30-pound Spiderwire, spooled up into his Penn Squall reels. His rods were Okuma 7-foot medium-light Dead Eye rods. Church planer boards help him spread his spoons, all 90 to 100 feet back.

The fish started hitting almost immediately. Singles, doubles and triples. The electronics screen continued to look like it was stuck on demo mode. It was less than two hours of actual fishing time and we each had our six fish per person.

There were several strategic differences that I noticed while we were on the water. One was that he ran all spoons. We use worm harnesses and stickbaits primarily here, although more spoons are being used this summer. The other was he kept his speed close to 2.8 mph, much faster than what we keep our speed in New York waters.

“I run at a faster speed to keep away from picking up other fish like sheepshead and silver bass,” Diver said. “I’ll go that fast for as long as it works.”

To say it worked was an understatement. In 2 hours, we had a 24-fish limit of Ohio walleyes between 17 and 24 inches long – perfect eater size, which was the primary focus of our trip. The one time we dropped our speed to 2.4 mph, we caught a sheepshead. The timing was perfect heading back in, too. We caught the bridge when it was up. Timing is everything.

Rick Hilts of North Tonawanda shows off the average-size walleye caught during a recent trip to Ashtabula, Ohio. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

So how good is the fishing in Ohio? To make an accurate comparison, let’s look at the catch rates from 2018, when Lake Erie set an all-time high in New York waters of 0.74 fish per angler hour. To put that in perspective, the 31-year average catch rate is 0.2 per hour, so we are talking about a catch rate that is more than 3.5 times higher than average.

Matthew Faust, Fisheries Biologist II with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife out of the Sandusky Fisheries Research Station, shared some statistics on Ohio waters.

“Most anglers remember walleye fishing during the 1980s as the heyday for Lake Erie,” said Faust, “and walleye harvest rates (number of fish harvested per angler hour) during the 1980s averaged between 0.4 and 0.5 fish per hour. Last year, harvest rates in Ohio averaged 0.8 fish per hour. That trend has continued so far this year with similarly high harvest rates across Ohio’s waters of Lake Erie. For example, preliminary creel data for June 2019 estimated the harvest rate to be 1.14 fish per hour (a high in our time series of data).”

Ohio and New York were very similar last year as far as catch rates, but if the 1.14 walleyes per hour is an indicator for this year and into the future, Ohio could make a substantial jump. Last year, in a joint bottom trawl with the Province of Ontario, researchers discovered 255 age-0 walleyes per hectare of lake bottom sampled – the largest  in the 30 years of the agency’s time series of data collection. They also recorded above-average hatches in 2014, 2015 and 2017. The spectacular walleye fishing could be here for many years to come.

When asked about trends or other information pertinent to managing the fishery through the acoustic telemetry data that is being collected, Faust said: “The various telemetry studies have provided lots of information to fisheries managers about where walleye move in Lake Erie and beyond, the timing associated with these movements, and information about the mortality rates of the various walleye populations that have been tagged in the western and eastern basins.

The Lowrance HDS 10 electronics unit looked like it was in demo mode all morning during a fishing trip out of Ashtabula, Ohio. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

“For example, we used data from 2014 and 2015 to examine what fraction of walleye tagged in the western basin spawning populations (Ohio reefs; Maumee, Detroit, and Sandusky rivers) moved to the different basins of Lake Erie. We found that most of these walleyes leave the western basin before June, with about 5 percent remaining in the west and less than 1 percent heading north into the Huron-Erie Corridor (Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, St. Clair River, and beyond to Lake Huron) during 2014-2015. Most tagged fish moved into the central and eastern basins, likely because of the cooler water temperatures and forage opportunities.

“More recently, we have been using the telemetry data to look at the movement patterns for the western basin walleye that migrate all the way down to the eastern basin. This is useful information for managers because we know that the populations in the western and eastern basins differ (we assume that the western walleye population is much larger than eastern basin population), but we do not have a great way to differentiate between east versus west-origin walleye. Having the ability to look at movement rates into and out of the eastern basin by walleye that spawn in the western basin gives us a much better understanding about where and when these fish are overlapping with the commercial and recreational fisheries in the eastern basin.”

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