Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Ohio Insider: A deeper look at Lake Erie as a smallmouth fishery

NOW, THIS IS A STORY worth telling and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

You probably saw the story on the cover of our Nov. 25 edition about the new Great Lakes record smallmouth caught by Fremont angler Gregg Gallagher and his son, Grant, on Lake Erie near Ontario’s Pelee Island.

To put it into historical perspective, I phoned Travis Hartman, Lake Erie program administrator for the ODNR Division of Wildlife.

Smallmouth bass on Lake Erie typically plays second, or even third, fiddle to walleyes and yellow perch. Yet, the lake supports a superb smallmouth fishery and it has done so for decades.

“When you look back at the early and mid-1990s we really went through a unique period where smallmouth exploded and conditions favored exceptional smallmouth bass fishing,” Hartman said. “We had some of the highest catch rates and some of the highest harvest we’ve ever had. I think, unfortunately, too many anglers when they think about Lake Erie smallmouth fishing think the fishing used to be good and now it’s just not worth it anymore.”

In other words, smallmouth bass on Lake Erie have a perception problem, Hartman said.

“It depends on what you want out of (the fishery),” he said.

“If you want to come up here and catch 150 fish or harvest your limit every day, it’s different than it used to be. If you fished (for smallmouths) in the ’90s and you’re looking for the same thing, you won’t find it. It’s different.”

Make no mistake, though, Hartman said, the lake still supports an incredible smallmouth fishery, one of the top places for the species in North America, according to Hartman.

“One thing we have noticed in the last year or two is that while we had poor hatches and poor recruitment in the late 1990s and early 2000s … we have started seeing more consistent recruitment,” he said. “When we sample smallmouth bass, we are seeing a good diversity, a lot of different year-classes present. We just haven’t gotten that big (year-class) or handful of year classes that tells us ‘wow, we’ve got a lot of fish all of a sudden.’”

Yet, Hartman says the smallmouth population in Lake Erie is more stable today than it was 10 or 15 years ago because of that diversity.

“But, we’re not back to population levels like we had in the late 1980s and early ’90s,” the fisheries biologist said. “But, with that all said, these last few years we are distinctly seeing more young fish than we had seen for a while … I think there’s a lot of room for optimism.”

Hartman says he believes the heyday of Lake Erie smallmouth populations in the 1990s and early 2000s could see a return in the near future.

The Gallagher’s huge smallmouth caught on Lake Erie just off Pelee Island in Ontario waters is getting a lot of attention and rightfully so. I’m detailing the catch and follow up procedure through Hartman’s eyes on Pages 9-10 of this edition, for example, and there’s been a lot of other press on it.

But, in the bigger picture, the tale should tell all those interested in knowing that Lake Erie is indeed one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries on the continent. Combine that with the walleye and yellow perch possibilities on the big lake and what’s not to like? It’s just an incredible fishery.

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