What Happened to Lake Erie?
The weather generally cooperated but the fish didn’t. This summer, Lake Erie anglers saw plenty of sonar markers but the perch weren’t biting. The walleye were here today in big numbers, but literally gone tomorrow.
“These boats and gear are expensive and when you hear about other guys catching fish you wonder what you’re doing wrong. It’s a hell of a thing, ” said Bill Cliner of Monroeville. “You can’t blame it on the fish or the weather or the Fish and Boat Commission. It’s about adapting to what’s there, and the guys who caught fish probably did that better than we did. But I’ll tell you, I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Cliner said he launched from Virginia’s Beach to North East in search of walleye and yellow perch. He motored into Ohio waters and crossed the U.S.-Canada line, trolled with Dipsies and planer boards and bounced jigs off the bottom. Throughout the summer, Cliner and friends had hookups including a 26-inch walleye and couple of 30-plus perch days.
“But our catch was down and that’s what I’m hearing from other guys, ” he said.
Cliner’s experience is basically supported by preliminary unconfirmed fish management assessments. More reliable 2015 stats suggest a downward trend in Lake Erie yellow perch numbers, and a stable walleye population of sublegal fish and unusually big trophy-size ‘eyes that follow the forage schools.
“There’s definitely been a decline in perch catch rates, ” said Chuck Murray, a fisheries biologist representing Pennsylvania in the international management of Lake Erie. “Our assessment nets are showing slightly above the long-term average, but there’s been a sharp decline [in the perch population] in the last few years.”
Murray said walleye catch rates were near the three-year average of 0.3 fish per hour, but the average walleye is getting bigger.
“We came off a huge record-setting abundance in 2003, and in 2005 that year-class entered the fishery - more than 120 million walleye, ” he said.
In 2015, 25 percent of walleye caught in Pennsylvania waters were from that year-class - 12-year-old fish that had grown to 26-30 inches. Murray said he expects the final 2016 fish assessment to show that trend continuing.
“[Anglers] were kind of chasing the walleye around. The schools were fairly mobile chasing bait fish, ” he said.
“The perch were there. For some reason they aren’t biting - it’s one of those things we don’t really know.”
He’s more certain about the welcome decline in numbers of invasive sea lamprey, which latch onto steelhead, lake trout and other fish to feed.
“Their peak population was in 2009, ” said Murray. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been vigilant in getting rid of them … and we’re seeing fewer wounded steelhead.”
At about 70 degrees the lake is still too warm for the steelhead to start staging off tributary mouths. Several have been caught or spotted in Elk and Walnut creeks, but Murray said they showed up late in assessment traps.
“The first steelhead was trapped at Godfrey Run in late September, ” he said. “We usually see fish around Labor Day.”
Murray said that despite budget cuts, the Fish and Boat Commission has remained committed to stocking 1 million 7-inch steelhead fingerlings.
“For the last three years the catch rate has been 0.35 fish per hour - similar to New York. I’d say this fall we’ll probably be at that or slightly above. We’ll need some rain and good flow.”
A brown trout put-grow-and-take program started in 2009 continues, as sublegal fish are stocked in the streams and come back at trophy size - longer than 20 inches. Fish and Boat stocked in October, but it was noticed that the browns stocked in May by co-op nurseries were returning at a far better rate. In 2015, 70, 000 brown trout were stocked in Lake Erie’s Pennsylvania tributaries.
“The interesting thing about them is we see the browns in November and by January there are none at all, ” Murray said.
Pink salmon were reported this year by Lake Erie boat and stream anglers. Murray said they supposedly originated in a fish husbandry accident of some kind in Lake Superior or Lake Huron. They reproduce naturally in the cool upper lakes and a few wander as far as Lake Erie’s eastern basin.