BY D’ARCY PATRICK EGAN
Lake Erie has responded with yet another strong spawning season, according to the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Last week at the annual Lake Erie Committee meetings of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Hamilton, Ontario, fisheries experts estimated a whopping 90 million walleye of all sizes will delight sport fishermen in 2023.
“Lake Erie simply has a fabulous walleye fishery, and it is expanding,” said Travis Hartman, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Fisheries Program Administrator. “Whether it has been a decade of high water, good fisheries management or Mother Nature, we’re seeing spawning schools of walleye expand their range all along the Ohio shoreline.”
The major spawning areas around Port Clinton, including the shallow, fertile Lake Erie limestone reefs and the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, have produced seven exceptional walleye hatches over the last nine years. Lake Erie is undoubtedly the Walleye Capital of the World, with sport anglers invading from around the country for a taste of the exceptional numbers of fish and the size of the walleye being caught.
Having enjoyed the spring river fishing and the year-round lake walleye fishing the past 50 years — and written about the slow but steady growth of Lake Erie’s Western Basin schools of walleye — the last couple of decades have been quite a blast. What wasn’t expected, though, has been an expansion of the spawning areas for Lake Erie walleye.
It was once believed that most Lake Erie walleye spawned in March and April on the western lake reefs, with a smaller percentage spawning in the rivers. Those walleye usually migrate to the east after spawning, said fisheries managers.
“We’re been using acoustic tags in the walleye in recent years to determine walleye travel patterns, and discovered many are spawning on the shallow reefs of the Central Basin, and mostly stay in the near-shore areas from Cleveland to Fairport Harbor,” said Hartman.
That means more spawning habitat, and more spawning success.
The Lake Erie Committee has estimated the 2023 walleye population for all of Lake Erie at 90 million fish. Ohio fishermen will catch mostly abundant 2- to 5-pound walleye ranging from 15 to 24 inches.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife is not recommending a change in the daily walleye bag of six fish, and keeping the minimum 15-inch size limit. Ohio and the Province of Ontario — the two major players with most of Lake Erie’s waters — will share the 2023 recommended Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of walleye set by the Lake Erie Committee, which is 13.526 million walleye.
Ohio sport anglers get the most, entitled to 6.913 million fish this year. Ontario, which allows commercial fishing on its side of Lake Erie, will see its TAC trimmed to 5.824 million walleye. Michigan, with its much smaller western lake slice of Lake Erie, for example, was allocated 0.789 million fish.
While walleye fishing is booming, though, yellow perch stocks have been in peril around Lake Erie in recent years. The Ohio’s Western Basin is still offering good perch fishing, and its daily bag limit will remain at 30 per day. Because Central Basin perch stocks have fallen radically, the daily bag limit will be only 10 perch per day.
The yellow perch TAC, which is expressed in pounds, not numbers of fish like walleye, will be trimmed lakewide to 6.573 million pounds of perch, including 1.222 million pounds in Ohio’s Western Basin and 0.259 million pounds in the Central Basin.
“It’s all about the forage base with yellow perch,” said Hartman. “Ohio fishermen know that emerald shiner minnows, the traditional forage that sustained big schools of perch, are hard to find for bait now. As a result, perch are generally moving to deeper waters to feed on midge and mayfly larvae, and invasive spiny water fleas.”
That is why, said Hartman, that perch fishermen in the Port Clinton area have had good fishing for perch in July and August.
“That is when water fleas stop reproducing because of the warmer water temperatures, making the perch easier to catch in the area. When the water temps dip below 60 degrees, the same thing happens. There are less spiny water fleas and the perch fishing picks up again.”
The good news for Western Basin perch fishing is that there’s a big 2-year-old year class of perch right now getting ready to spawn next spring, fish that will measure about 7 inches or more this year around the Western Basin.”
The biggest Lake Erie surprise is an increased interest in Lake Erie’s schools of smallmouth bass. That has been do to the consistent catches of trophy smallmouth bass in tournaments being held around the Lake Erie islands and Lake St. Clair. A real shot in the arm came on Nov. 3, when Gregg Gallagher, a Fremont, Ohio business teacher, and his son, Grant, took a day off to search for trophy Lake Erie bass.
Grant is a tournament bass fisherman, but his dad relishes Lake Erie walleye. With his son’s advice and, more importantly, his choice of a fishing location off Pelee Island, Gallagher boated an amazing 10.15-pound smallmouth bass.
It was the biggest smallmouth bass ever caught from the Great Lakes, and the third largest smallmouth bass on record. The 16-year-old bass has already achieved legendary status, and is expected to lure a legion of die-hard bass anglers.
“It was the girth of the bass that was the most impressive,” said Hartman. “I’d never seen a bass that was that big around.”