Although the number of walleye in Lake Erie is but a fraction of the abundance of the late 1980’s, the Ohio Division of Wildlife has decided to keep walleye limits unchanged for the 2017 season. Experts anticipate even fewer fish, but bag limits will remain at four fish per angler per day until May 1, and six fish per angler per day for the rest of the year. In addition to great recreational opportunities, walleye fishing generates millions of dollars in revenue for the bait, tackle, marina, and charter businesses that depend upon anglers. Diminishing numbers of walleye mean financial loss for these businesses. However, when environmental conditions are right, large numbers of walleye can reappear. According to Jeff Tyson of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, “When the stars align, it can still happen.”
Environmental Conditions Affect Walleye Hatch and Survival
Tyson explains that flow rates of feeder rivers, wind conditions, and winter severity all affect the hatch and survival rate of walleye. Scientists originally thought that greater flow rates of the Sandusky and Maumee rivers would result in a higher survival rate for walleye, but research proved that the opposite was true. During flood conditions, more sediment is stirred up, making it more difficult for the young to find adequate food. High winds can also contribute to mortality rates, blowing eggs away from suitable nursery habitat.
Although it would seem logical that milder winters would produce greater numbers of walleye, research has shown the reverse to be true. When winters are more severe, there is a more abundant hatch. While less ice on the lake results in greater lake effect snowfall for coastal areas, it is the amount and duration of ice cover on the lake that is a good indicator of the success of that year’s walleye hatch. Ideally, the colder winter weather will be followed by steadily warming water temperatures in the lake’s western basin.
Degradation of Environment Also a Factor
In addition to weather conditions, habitat manipulation resulting from human activity can affect walleye survival rates. Greater amounts of phosphorus being released into Lake Erie, along with the presence of more blue-green algae, may be making the environment less hospitable for the fish. Additional research is being conducted on the spawning rates of surviving walleye. Since the Department of Natural Resources and the research laboratories do not control water quality for the areas surrounding Lake Erie, they must confine their research to examining water quality in the lake and determining correlations with increases and decreases in the walleye populations.
Tyson says, “Something in land use practices has changed, but what? We can only study what comes out the end of the pipe.”
Favorable Future for Walleye Fishing
Natural resource managers and scientists are devoting vast amounts of research to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how a healthy population of walleye can be maintained in Lake Erie. The results of their efforts, combined with favorable weather conditions, promise to keep Lake Erie’s popular sport fish around for anglers’ enjoyment and in coming years. Limiting catches this year is part of the plan for helping the walleye numbers rebound. Even with smaller limits, schools of 24 to 25-inch fish should provide plenty of fishing fun this year. Anglers can still tie on those jigs and rigs and have a great time fishing for Lake Erie walleye.