Steelhead catch rate up on Erie

Fairport Harbor, Ohio – Ohio’s steelhead stocking program has
become so popular that the number of fish put into Lake Erie’s
eastern Ohio tributaries has doubled since the practice began in
1993.

And because of that popularity, anglers can look forward to even
more steelhead fishing opportunities in the not-too-distant
future.

According to DNR Division of Wildlife creel surveys, in 2006
anglers took 1,239 trips expressly for steelhead on Lake Erie.
There was a catch rate of .38 fish per hour, or four per trip.

“That number of .38 is really quite high,” said Kevin Kayle,
aquatic biology supervisor at the Fairport Fisheries Research
Station. “Other Great Lakes states have been reporting catch rates
of .1.”

Kayle said the number actually dropped to 5,438 fish taken from
the lake in 2006 from an all-time high of 41,000 in 2002. The
change, he said, is not due to a lack of fish and reflects on lake
fishing only.

“In 2002, walleyes were not as plentiful as they are now. So,
more people were targeting steelhead. Now that walleyes have come
back in a big way, fewer people are fishing for steelhead,” he
said. “If more people would fish for (steelhead) in the lake, that
number would go back up very quickly.”

He said most anglers prefer walleyes on their plates over
steelhead. Since walleyes swim closer to shore and can be caught in
the Western Basin instead of the deep water of the Central Basin,
they are much more prevalent for hook and line anglers. And with
the price of gas, it saves money to fish for walleyes, rather than
steelhead. 

Kayle was quick to point out, however, the “real” fishery for
steelhead is in the streams (from September through May). That’s
where more people fish for them.

There is no recent data on numbers taken during stream fishing.
Kayle said creel surveys will start this year and be conducted for
two years. He also pointed out stream fishermen for steelhead are
more likely to practice catch-and-release than lake anglers.

Each year, the division stocks 400,000 steelhead yearlings. The
program began in 1993 with 200,000, but doubled in 2000 once the
biologists figured out exactly when and where to put the fish.

Elmer Heyob, fish hatcheries administrator for the Division of
Wildlife, said there are multiple reasons for the Ohio steelhead
fishery’s success. He pointed to the Central Basin’s cool
temperatures as well as the species of fish.

“We first started stocking fish from the brood stock of rainbows
at the London Fish Hatchery,” Heyob said. “They were good fish in
the hatchery, but that doesn’t always mean they will do well in the
wild. They’re still great fish for our catchable trout program, but
they aren’t suited as steelhead in Lake Erie.

“During the first two years of the program, we kept comparing
the London hatchery fish with the very successful Little Manistee
River strain out of Michigan and it became evident pretty quick
they would be a superior steelhead to stock in our tributaries,”
Heyob said.

He said the Little Manistee strain has a higher survival rate
and grows larger than the hatchery fish.

For many years, the Michigan DNR traded steelhead eggs for Ohio
channel catfish. However, since the federal government banned
interstate travel for certain species of fish susceptible to the
disease VHS two years ago, Ohio has been able to continue getting
steelhead eggs, but Michigan has decided against accepting
catfish.

Heyob explained that Michigan eggs are treated and inspected for
VHS, and while the catfish have always tested clean, Michigan is
taking no chances. He said Michigan will continue to supply Ohio
with trout eggs (which are raised at the Castalia hatchery) as long
as it has a surplus.

“We’ve talked about getting our own eggs from our Lake Erie
fish, but it’s a very expensive process,” Heyob said. “We’ll
probably keep it going the way it is as long as we can. But you are
always a little uncomfortable accepting eggs from another
state.”

Heyob said although the number of fish released won’t increase
from 400,000 in the near future, there should be more opportunities
to catch steelhead because fish will likely be redistributed into a
few other tributaries in a year or two.

This year, stocking (at the end of April) will probably be set
up this way: the Rocky, Chagrin and Grand Rivers will each receive
90,000, the Vermilion River will get 55,000, and Conneaut Creek
will receive 75,000. But there’s a bonus if you fish Conneaut Creek
because it’s also scheduled to receive 75,000 from
Pennsylvania. 

In future years, the Division of Wildlife hopes to add some
rivers by redistributing the 400,000 fish allowed by the Great
Lakes Fisheries Commission. Other rivers likely to receive the
yearlings would be the Huron, Ashtabula, and Cuyahoga.

“What you hope for is those yearlings will imprint on the
streams where they are released and return there to spawn the next
year,” said Dave Insley, manager of the Castalia hatchery. “That
improves the fishery in that river.”

“And who knows, some day we might start collecting and producing
our own and we could have that number increased,” Heyob said.

For more information on the steelhead program, visit ohiodnr.com.

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