Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Anglers can expect lots of Lake Erie walleyes

By Deborah Weisberg
Southwest Correspondent


Although Lake Erie’s superabundance of walleyes should delight anglers again this year, fishery managers say it may be too much of a good thing.


“In my 27 years with the commission I never thought I’d see the day where we’d have too many walleyes in the lake,” said Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission biologist Chuck Murray, who points to successive years of robust recruitment. 


“But it’s out of whack. We have more walleyes than we’d like, so we’re a little concerned.”


Following his annual meeting with other Lake Erie states and Ontario – the so-called Lake Erie Committee – March 25, Murray kept this year’s daily creel limit at six fish at least 15 inches, but suggested that it could be increased in future years in an effort to bring the fishery into balance.


It’s too soon to determine, but it’s on the radar, he said.


The walleye population is currently estimated at 116 million fish, age 2 or older, and those from the 2018 spawn “will dominate,” Murray said. “There will be a lot of catch-and-release fishing this year.”


Many will be short even halfway through the season when, in a more normal fishery, at least a portion of 2- year-olds reach harvest size, Murray said.


“That may not happen this year because there are just so many fish.” 


The concern is that the walleyes will be forced to compete against each other for food and grow more slowly.


There have been fewer emerald shiners and smelt to feed on in recent years, although walleyes also forage on young perch and whatever else is available, “even each other,” Murray said. “They cannibalize.”


And while they appear to be in good condition now, Murray will be monitoring their development. “I hope we don’t find emaciated fish later in the season,” he said.


If a change in harvest regulations is on the horizon, it would likely mean expanded creel limits. “We wouldn’t alter the season or reduce the size minimum,” he said. “If anything, we would raise the limit to eight or 10 fish. It’s been done before, but we are not there yet.”


At the March meeting of the Lake Erie Committee, Pennsylvania’s recommended allowable harvest for walleyes this year was set at about 13.4 million fish. Quotas are used to determine limits for both commercial and recreational anglers. 


And many limits will be taken, along with a sizeable number of sub-legal size fish, Murray said.


“I don’t like to make bold predictions, but, yeah, the walleye bite is going to be pretty spectacular. What’s happening now is really unheard of.”


Even anglers who don’t have fancy equipment can have a field day, he said. “You should be able to catch walleyes just about anywhere, that’s how abundant they are. Even a guy in a kayak with a hook and worm should be able to do well in shallow water.”


The same probably can’t be said of yellow perch, which also was addressed at the March 25 meeting. Although Murray kept the same 30-day limit for this year, anglers will probably find limiting out as challenging as in the past two years, he said, noting that the 2019 catch-rate averaged one perch per hour.


The fishery is not at an historic low as it was in the early 1990s. “In fact, surveys suggest the current population is just slightly below average,” Murray said, “but it is a reverse of the perch bite of 2005-06 when catch-rates exceeded five fish an hour.”


“Back then, 70 percent of anglers on the open lake were targeting perch. That was a high point,” Murray said. “Now we’re at the other end of the spectrum.”


This year’s total allowable catch is 530,000 pounds, including 100,000 pounds for the commercial trap industry. The total allowable catch is 8 percent less than in 2019 but 5 percent above the long-term average of 551,314 pounds and well above any projected attainment. 


Since 1996, recreational anglers have averaged about 122,000 pounds a year and commercial fishermen about 17,000 pounds a year, Murray said. “We’ve never attained quota.”

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