Out-of-the-way reefs tapped in trout stocking

By John Hageman
Contributing Writer

Put-In-Bay, Ohio — On May 10, the DNR Division of Wildlife chartered a ferry boat trip with the Miller Boat Line in Put-in-Bay to stock 40,000 yearling lake trout from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Allegheny Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pennsylvania.

An additional 36,000 lake trout were stocked on May 11 off of the Fairport Harbor boat ramp. All had tiny wire coded tags implanted into their snouts. This will allow fisheries biologists to document migration, growth, and survival rates when the fish are recaptured and scanned.

Despite extensive attempts to re-establish lake trout populations in Lake Erie through annual stocking in their Eastern Basin summer range since 1979, there has been little evidence to date of any successful recruitment through natural reproduction.

Since 2012, yearling lake trout have been stocked in Ohio near the islands and at Fairport Harbor in an attempt to re-establish a spawning population in other areas of the lake. Some Western Basin reefs were historically used by Lake Erie lake trout, leading to the decision to use the ferry boat to release these fish near some island reefs. Similar remote stockings have shown promise in other Great Lakes.

The Division of Wildlife also expects that the survival rates of the young lake trout would be greater if stocked in a manner to avoid the island and nearshore’s high densities of predatory fish and double-crested cormorants while they disperse.

Lake trout are a cold water species native to the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, that is listed in Ohio as a species of concern. They typically spend their summers in the deep water of Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin, between New York, Pennsylvania, and Ontario.

Stocking is part of ongoing efforts to rehabilitate populations decimated by the explosive growth of sea lampreys after their invasion into the upper lakes, beginning in the 1880s with the completion of the Welland Canal from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. By 1965, sea lampreys and pollution eliminated the remaining lake trout population.

Rehabilitating this population is considered a key ingredient to restoring a healthy cold-water ecosystem. They are not expected to become numerous enough to compete with forage fish typically consumed by nearshore fish species such as walleyes, yellow perch, smallmouth black bass, or white bass.

Beginning in 1969, Pennsylvania began modest stocking efforts with 17,000 yearlings first stocked. A more formal restoration effort was begun in 1982 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a goal of 160,000 yearlings per year to be stocked.

Competition with Canadian trawling interests for the commercial smelt fishery caused the stocking rates to be reduced to 120,000 per year, until a noticeable drop in the adult populations became evident and the stocking numbers went back to 160,000 annually.

Unfortunately, survival rates remain very poor, due to on-going, robust sea lamprey populations and reduced productivity in the lake that has led to reduction of prey densities.

Competition for smelt with steelhead and walleyes concern some sportsmen, but Ohio fisheries biologists point out that the stocking size of 76,000 is very small, compared to the 400,000-plus steelhead trout that are planted into Ohio streams each year that do not appear to be competing with walleyes.

Furthermore, walleyes and lake trout are both native species that have co-existed for thousands of years and their range overlap is small. The desire to rehabilitate the species to strengthen the ecosystem outweighs unfounded concerns about competition with steelhead or walleyes, biologists say.

When smelt are not abundant, steelhead trout readily consume spiny water fleas, walleyes target emerald shiners, and shad and lake trout feed upon round gobies. It all continues to work out, since each species continues to exhibit good growth rates and body condition.

Except for the period of time that it will take to reach their summer range, habitat overlap with walleyes is minimal, due to trout’s cold-water requirements, which keep lake trout in the deepest portions of the lake.

In the meantime, fishermen are reporting catching some of the fingerlings and have also seen them show up in the stomachs of large walleyes. Lake trout fishing is growing a little more popular off of Pennsylvania and New York, with mostly a catch-and-release fishery.

The Lake Erie state records for lake trout include a 41.5-pound/42¾-inch fish for New York (2003), and a 29.4-pound fish for Pennsylvania (2012).

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