Colder temps encouraging for Lake Erie ice fishers

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ice fishing guide
There are more than 100 ice fishing guides listed on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website, all working in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

Like most of the ice fishing guides listed on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website, Capt. Tony Muscioni had to cancel nearly all of his bookings last month because of a lack of ice on Lake Erie.

Sure, some of the guides were going out by boat to troll for walleye in the Western Basin. However, guides who take customers out to fishing spots on four-wheelers or snowmobiles were pretty much out of luck.

And while Muscioni is one of the few ice fishing guides with an airboat, his luck wasn’t any better. Though the airboat won’t sink if it breaks through thin ice, he insists on at least four inches so his customers will be safe.

That kind of ice just didn’t exist on the lake in the first month of the new year, and it wasn’t until Groundhog Day that there was a glimmer of hope for thicker ice. Not only did the pudgy rodent see his shadow, but the National Weather Service’s Great Lakes Ice Outlook predicted that arctic air the following week “will allow for moderate to rapid ice growth, especially over more shallow waters…primarily Lake Erie and Huron.”

Retirement plans

When Muscioni retired from his day job, he also retired from being a semi-pro walleye fisherman because tournaments were taking up all his spare time. He could have become a charter captain, he said, but knew from the experience of some friends how much work was involved, which didn’t seem much like retirement to him.

But when he had an opportunity to buy an airboat, he jumped at the chance to use it for charter ice fishing. Ten years later, he has customers coming from Alaska, Canada, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York — as well as Ohio — from January through March.

When there’s enough ice, he takes customers out from West Catawba State Park to their fishing spots in the enclosed, heated airboat. He drills the holes and helps them set up their shanties, if needed, and then stays and fishes with them. That way he can make sure they’re safe, and move them to another spot if the first one proves unproductive.

Unfortunately, as this winter began, “the ice just wasn’t cooperating,” the captain said. “It’s been that way for the past two or three years.”

Effect on fish

So mild winters and lack of ice can hurt humans — ice fishing fans and their guides — but what about the fish they are trying to catch? A dissertation by Troy Farmer at The Ohio State University showed that in a laboratory setting, perch kept in colder conditions longer produced higher-quality eggs. Those eggs had higher hatch rates and produced bigger larvae, which usually means a higher survival rate.

Another project by OSU and Division of Wildlife biologists seemed to show that colder winter temperatures correlated with stronger year classes of both perch and walleye. A “year class” refers to how many of that year’s hatchlings are still around when biologists do their surveys.

For the Western Basin of Lake Erie, that’s usually in August and September. In the Central Basin, the surveys start in September and might go through November.

“At about seven months old, they’re considered recruited,” said Eric Weimer, Fishery Biologist Supervisor at the ODNR Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky Fisheries Research Station. “If the hatchlings reach recruitment age, biologists can use their abundance to predict the number of fish that will survive and enter the walleye or yellow perch fishery as 2-year-olds.”

Fish hatches

Studies seem to show that frigid temperatures make for better fish hatches and for good fishing two years later when most have grown to legal size. But does a mild winter, with its corresponding lack of ice, mean poor fish hatches? Not necessarily, Weimer said.

Lake Erie’s 2018 walleye hatch was the largest since counts began in the 1980s, while the 2019 hatch came in a close second. There were also high yellow perch hatches in the Western Basin those two years. Both the 2018 and 2019 hatches came after mild winters, as did the big hatches of 2020.

Last year, the Western Basin saw the eighth-best walleye hatch in the 34 years of the survey, while the yellow perch hatch was the sixth-best, Weimer said.

“That goes against what the earlier research suggests, but there are so many other factors that figure into it,” he said.

For instance, research shows that spring discharge from rivers can affect fish hatches in Lake Erie. The right amount of nutrients entering the lake at the right time can jump-start production of the zooplankton that are food for the hatchlings. However, too many nutrients can impact the overall health of the lake, he said.

When fish eggs first hatch, they have a yolk sack to feed on while their mouthparts develop, which takes a few days. But fish can’t chew, so even after their mouths develop, they must have food available that is small enough to swallow whole. It’s called “gape limitation” in scientific lingo.

That’s where a mild winter might cause problems, Weimer said. Warm weather might cause the zooplankton to begin growing too early in the season, and be too big to eat when young perch and walleye must rely on them for food.

The bottom line, no pun intended, is that there are so many factors figuring into hatch rates that a mild winter — and shortage of ice — may not mean lower walleye and perch populations in the future.

After all, Lake Erie anglers reaped the benefits of the huge 2018 hatches in 2020 and may continue to do so this winter, if the ice holds. And even if it doesn’t, the man whose Italian-born grandfather worked in Sandusky’s Lay Brothers Fisheries, and who taught him to fish on Lake Erie ice, says he will not give up his second career.

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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