New survey gives more accurate view of Lake Erie fish populations

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Lake Erie’s walleye —easily one of the wonders of the fishing world and the only fish known to fall from the sky on New Year’s Eve in a western Ohio coastline city that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World — is simply not what it once was.

Nevertheless, walleye continue to attract thousands of anglers and challenge wildlife officials when it comes to keeping count and executing a management plan that includes of course, the number of fish that can be taken each year by sport fishermen and commercial netters which are allowed in Lake Erie’s Canadian waters.

New math

Just recently, the number of walleye estimated to live in Lake Erie, has changed drastically, not because there are more or less than previously thought, but because of a change in the annual estimates are generated.

According to Mark Turner, an Ohio Division of Wildlife fish biologist specializing in Lake Erie fisheries, a new model has replaced older methods and the resulting estimates are much higher, but still relative, when evaluating the health of the walleye fishery in terms of total numbers and annual spawning success.

Keep in mind that Ohio represents just one of several states and Ontario where regulations affect and depend on realistic game and fish numbers. Several stake holders worked together to develop the new model, a task that falls on Lake Erie’s bordering states and Ontario every five years.

Dropping numbers

Just a couple years ago, the total number of walleye was estimated to be in the area of 17 million. If the estimate was to go any lower, which it did as overall Lake estimates dropped, according to Ohio wildlife officials, the daily fishing limit would need to be lowered.

Fortunately, the new, more refined model was introduced and suggested a more accurate number — one that showed much higher, but still decreasing numbers.

Formula details

The number of walleye in the lake is determined now by mixing several factors. The most significant perhaps is the actual count of young each year, which determines the success of that spring’s spawn.

The count is taken in the western basin, where it is known that the vast majority of Erie’s walleye are born. Officials drag trawl nets over specific, pre-determined routes so that yearly results can be compared.

The August trawls covered 35 routes. Turner said that trawl results taken in August indicate a spawn success similar to those in 2001, 2007, and 2010.

Encouraging numbers

The long-term average is slightly higher than those above, but overall the numbers are encouraging to fish biologists.

They point to the 2014 spawn as average and a sign that Lake Erie walleye fishing will continue to be populated with a nice mix of fish classes.

Every angler knows that the best-ever spawn of 2003 has carried the walleye fishery for years, but it can’t feast on that class of fish —some of which now range in the 14-pound trophy arena — for much longer.

Other surveys

The same trawl net surveys also allow biologists to measure the spawning success of yellow perch, Lake Erie’s top draw for weekend anglers.

Perch spawns have not been overly successful in recent years but that changed for the better this summer, with the fourth best spawn since counts began in 1987.

Turner and officials at other fisheries look to this perch spawn to supercharge the perch fisheries in coming years.

Although the walleye and perch spawned in Erie’s structure-rich western basin are the focus of surveys, it is known and accepted that there exist sub-populations of walleye that spawn elsewhere.

The perch spawned this year measure about 3.5 inches now and will grow to 5-6 inches next summer. Young walleye are about nine inches now and will be 11 to 13 inches next summer and 15 to 17 inches in their third year.

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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.

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