Lake Erie walleye fishermen welcome near-record hatch in Western Basin

By James F. McCarty, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Lake Erie appeared to have solidified its crown as the Walleye Capital of the World this week with news that the walleye hatch in the Western Basin this spring could be ranked as the second-largest in the lake’s history, and the largest in 15 years.

Those were the preliminary findings of an August survey conducted at 40 locations by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The yellow perch hatch counts also were strong and well above average year numbers, the agency announced.

The walleye survey report could hardly have come at a better time for the fleet of 650 or so fishing charter boat captains whose businesses have suffered in recent years in the wake of Lake Erie’s annual, harmful algal blooms.

“Oh boy, yes, it’s like a gift has fallen from heaven here,” said Captain Dave Spangler, skipper of Dr. Bugs Charters out of Oak Harbor, and vice president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association.

“With the amount of first-year walleye hatching this year, combined with the large walleye classes of 2014 and 2015, this is going to give us a real good look for at least the next 20 years down the road,” Spangler said.

Retired Plain Dealer outdoors writer D’Arcy Egan, who lives in Marblehead, was equally impressed by the survey news.

“It’s a pretty amazing graphic,” Egan said. “I never thought I’d see a hatch come close to 2003. No one in our lifetime has ever seen a walleye population of this magnitude in Lake Erie.”

The voluminous walleye hatch apparently was the product of a perfect alignment between weather conditions and microorganisms in the Western Basin, said Eric Weimer, supervisor of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Fishery Research Station in Sandusky.

Research has shown that long, cold winters often produce large walleye and perch hatches in the spring. Scientists and anglers initially had low expectations after an early warm-up, but that was quickly followed by a sudden cold spell from mid-March into April, which appears to have brought a protracted spawning period, Weimer said.

The cold early spring likely aligned the production of zooplankton with the walleye hatch, providing an abundance of food for the tiny walleye to feed on, he said.

“We’re going to enjoy the benefits of this year for many years to come,” Weimer said. “There’s a ton of fish out there.”

Actually, an estimated 40 million walleye are in Lake Erie, which has brought “an embarrassment of wealth” for anglers, and has started talk of raising the daily bag limit of six walleyes from May through February, and a limit of four during the spawning months of March and April. The 2014 hatch accounted for about half of the 1.3 million walleye caught last year. The yellow perch limit is 30.

The walleye and perch surveys are conducted each August in the western basin using bottom trawls to capture the first-year fingerlings. Fisheries biologists compare the numbers to previous years to estimate the success of the walleye and yellow perch hatches, and to estimate of how many young fish will enter the fishable population two years later.

This year’s survey found 112 walleye per roughly 2-1/2 acres of lake bottom, which was the second-highest to 2003’s record numbers, and far above the 20-year average.

The yellow perch hatch of 511 perch per roughly 2-1/2 acres of lake bottom was well above the 20-year average of 316 perch in that expanse.

Initial reports from bottom trawl surveys conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Ontario waters of the western basin showed similar bountiful results for first-year walleye and yellow perch, the Division of Wildlife said.

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