Solving the Lake Erie walleye puzzle
Lake Erie is a huge lake. It’s the 12th biggest lake in the world. This shared resource between New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario has been managed jointly to try and figure out more about the lake’s walleye populations. Using acoustic telemetry, managers are starting to get a feel for what’s happening out there with ol’ marble eye.
In the Western Basin of the lake, Ohio fisheries biologists have tagged 310 walleyes with a transmitter tag. Roughly nine percent of those fish showed up in the Eastern Basin in the waters off New York, proving that fish will migrate over from the Buckeye State.
“We’ve recorded 29 fish so far moving down off New York waters,” Jason Robinson told a group of media people at the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers fall conference at Peek n’ Peak Resort in Chautauqua County earlier this month. “That’s nine percent of the fish that were tagged. Early indications are that the tagging location does not appear to be related to eastward movement.” Robinson is a fisheries biologist with the Lake Erie Unit of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what happens year after year. Is the movement instinctive or environmental? How much of a role does bait movement or water temperature play? In the past, anglers would look for a large migratory school of walleye to show up in June off the Empire State shoreline and hang around all summer until the cool weather arrived. Many local captains would put their boats away after Labor Day, assuming the big school returned back home. Could this study help change fishing attitudes?
“We’ve found that Ohio walleye will start arriving in May,” said Robinson. “Based on our early results, we’ve found that many of those fish will hang around through September, October and even November.” Remember, that was information from 2015.
In 2016, it was peculiar in that it was one of the warmest on record this summer. Water temperatures in the lake were still 74 degrees in mid-September, the warmest it’s ever been for this time of year. Fishing seemed to fluctuate from week to week throughout the summer as anglers would struggle a bit to find active fish. However, as the season progressed, success stories seemed to increase. When it came time for the AGLOW conference in September, a large school of fish was pinpointed in the lake, stretching from Cattaraugus Creek to Dunkirk. Many of the writers had an opportunity to “test the waters,” so to speak, and that was the buzz of the conference as they scrambled for pictures, quotes … and fillets at the end of the trip.
Even after the conference, that walleye school was generating a ton of excitement … as some of the regular fishermen were making arrangements to put their boats away for the year. What will those migration numbers be for 2016 from the acoustic receivers? Will any of the same fish that migrated down in 2015 also migrate down in 2016?
One myth that was busted was that only smaller fish were making the trek from West to East. Fish from 18 inches long to 32 inches in length were tagged off Ohio and took a trip to New York. Many anglers assumed that a 28-inch fish or bigger was an Eastern Basin fish. Not true.
In addition, the Eastern Basin fish will also move to the West. Robinson confirmed that there is a $100 reward associated with the New York tagged fish and they’ve received returns from Cleveland to Toronto; even from a fertilizer company in Wisconsin. The Toronto and Wisconsin tags were probably the result of the commercial fishery on the lake in Canada. One fish was tagged in Van Buren Bay west of Dunkirk on May 2, 2015. Two days later it was caught off Evans Bar 22 miles away. There are 62 of these fish swimming around, tagged from New York alone. There are hundreds more from Ohio. Ontario has tagged some, too. Just look for the external tag on the dorsal fin and follow the instructions if you catch on of these fish.
Stay tuned for some more very cool information on walleye. And if you’re looking for a hot bite on these fish, head out to 70 feet of water west of Cattaraugus Creek or east of Dunkirk to take advantage of the big school of fish … wherever they are from.