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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Saturday essay: Ohio's fish? Walleye, of course

BY SCOTT CARPENTER

The small-mouth bass would be a fine fish to represent Ohio as the official state fish, but not nearly as good a choice as the Lake Erie walleye.

The state legislature, which has foundered for about a decade on the seemingly trivial task of naming an official state fish, recently rekindled the debate in Columbus by holding hearings on House Bill 19, which would make the smallmouth a symbol of the state.

Choosing “Hang on Sloopy” as the state song and tomato juice as the official beverage was easy compared to landing a single fish to represent the Buckeye State. But to those who witnessed the transformation of Lake Erie from laughing stock to world-class fishery, the walleye is already “Ohio's Fish.”

Despite the well-reasoned arguments of the Ohio Smallmouth Alliance, which is lobbying for its favorite bass, the walleye is the sentimental favorite. And isn't sentiment what this is really about?

The OSA makes a strong case for the tried-and-true smallie. Like the state bird (the cardinal), the state animal (the whitetail deer), and the state insect (the ladybug), the small-mouth bass is found in all 88 counties of Ohio.

“Smallies” are scrappy fighters that are almost universally popular with anglers. They are widely accessible fish that can be caught in Lake Erie, the Ohio River, and just about any other lake, reservoir, and stream in between. And they are an environmental barometer whose presence indicates good water quality.

The smallmouth would be the equivalent of Ben Franklin's suggestion that the wild turkey be our national symbol - practical, but hardly as inspiring as the bald eagle.

Stizostedion vitreum, the walleye (also known as the pickerel, yellow pike, or wall-eyed pike) is found only in the Great Lakes. While the fish has been stocked in larger lakes and reservoirs around the state, in Ohio the walleye is synonymous with Lake Erie.

Since the walleye is not available throughout the state, anglers from all over Ohio come to the walleye. More than 500,000 people fish in Lake Erie each year and the walleye is their number one prey.

According to state records, people from more than half the Zip Codes in Ohio bought 1999 fishing licenses at the Port Clinton WalMart. A survey by the Ohio Division of Wildlife found that more than half of Lake Erie anglers were from the Columbus area. That's in the summer. In the spring, fishermen from all corners of Ohio and the nation descend on the tributaries, especially the Maumee River, which has drawn anglers from nearly every state and several foreign countries during the largest walleye spawning run on the Great Lakes.

The small-mouth bass is a great game fish, but the Lake Erie walleye is a phenomenon.

Walleye were plentiful in the 1940s and 1950s. The harvest peaked in 1956 at 15.6 million pounds. But through the next decade, the walleye succumbed to years of pollution and over-fishing. When mercury contamination was discovered in the fish in 1970, sport fishing was suspended and commercial fishing was banned.

But just as the walleye symbolized all that was wrong with the lake in the 1970s, it would become an icon of the lake's rebirth in the 1980s. It is the species that started the fishing craze that forever changed Lake Erie's image from “the dead lake” to “the Walleye Capital of the World,” as Gov. James Rhodes declared to a group of outdoor writers gathered for Governor's Fish Ohio Day in 1980.

In 20 years, the walleye population in Lake Erie had grown from 2 million fish that could be caught to more than 100 million. Ohio fishermen were bringing in walleye by the boatloads, peaking at 4.9 million fish in 1988. That year, fishermen spent a record 10 million hours pursuing walleye and the Lake Erie charterboat fleet grew to become the largest on all of the Great Lakes, topping 1,000 boats, 20 times the number in operation just a decade before.

It was also during this time that a funny-looking fishing lure called an Erie Dearie became a hot commodity at the new bait shops and sporting good stores that opened near the lakeshore.

Even today, with clearer water driving light-sensitive walleye into deeper water and the annual sport harvest at just a fraction of what it was in its heyday, catch rates still justify calling Lake Erie the Walleye Capital of the World. What's more, the walleye remains a one-fish industry that annually pumps nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into the state's economy.

No other community has benefited more from the walleye boom than Port Clinton, and no town could be more grateful. Each summer, residents celebrate a Walleye Festival, which centers around a city park dedicated to charterboat captain Dan Galbincea, inventor of the Erie Dearie. Each Dec. 31, they lower a giant walleye to tick off the final seconds leading to the New Year like the giant sparkling ball in New York.

No other fish, including the small-mouth, elicits such passion from any town, anywhere. It's no surprise that it was State Rep. Chris Redfern of Port Clinton who sponsored a bill that would make the walleye an official symbol of our state.

The walleye is more than a great sport fish; it is the embodiment of one of Ohio's proudest achievements: the restoration of our greatest natural resource. That makes the walleye the sentimental favorite like the scarlet carnation and a symbol of inspiration like the bald eagle.

By comparison, the venerable small-mouth is a real turkey.

Scott Carpenter is a member of the board of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio. He is employed by the Toledo Area Metroparks.



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