Weston, Ohio, angler John Hageman reeled in this 13-inch yellow perch off Conneaut on a recent trip.
SANDUSKY -- Don't let that parade of boats trudging south from the lake fool you: In the minds of a lot of fishermen, they are headed in the wrong direction.
While the recreational boating season might end with Labor Day weekend for some, the anglers in the know consider it the unofficial start of the second fishing season.
When schools open, football kicks off and the mornings have that hint of a chill to greet you as you walk out the door, the fishing fortunes spike.
"That fall walleye fishery is absolutely phenomenal, size-wise, thanks to that 2003 class, so the opportunity for some outstanding fall fishing is there," said Jeff Tyson, fisheries biologist supervisor at the Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit of the Division of Wildlife. "Those guys make for a high quality fishery."
Many of the bigger walleyes, which sought refuge over the summer in the deeper, cooler waters of the Central and Eastern basins of the lake, are moving back to the Western Basin.
Some will form schools with a priority on feeding as they instinctively build up their reserves for winter and for the critical spawning period that will follow.
Tyson said the extended runs of very hot weather this past summer should not have a big impact on the timing of walleye movement toward the Western Basin.
"What happens from here on out is what's most important," he said. "The water temperature is already dropping with these cooler nights we've had, and if that continues, the migration pattern typically gives us a peak fishery in November."
Tyson said the most recent data indicate the overall harvest on Lake Erie through the month of July was up over last year, for both charter fishing operations and private fishing boats.
The yellow perch fishing has picked up significantly in the past month, Tyson said, with the bigger average-sized fish expected the further east the angler goes.
Weston fisherman John Hageman, who retired a year ago after a long career studying the lake's fishery at Stone Lab, has experienced that jumbo perch phenomenon a half dozen times recently, fishing out of Conneaut in the Eastern Basin.
"We've never come back without a limit, and we've been picky too," Hageman said.
Hageman is an advocate for anglers extending their efforts deep into the fall, until the weather essentially tells them it is time to quit, or wait for the ice to form.
"There's been a real trend recently to have extended warm falls, and that provides a lot of fishing opportunities," he said. "You just have to watch the wind and pick your days. Sometimes you get out, and other times you retreat."
A combination of factors can make fall the ideal time to fish Lake Erie, starting with the cooperative mood of walleyes, perch, and smallmouth bass.
"But you're also looking at a less crowded lake in the fall than we have in the spring, when everyone is fish crazy and so anxious to get out there," Hageman said. "If you compare April to October in terms of boat traffic on the lake and around the ramps, there is no comparison. You can fish as late in the year as the weather allows, with little competition."
Tyson expects the perch catch to be good, with most of the nicer keepers coming from the 2007, 2008, and 2009 hatches.
The fishing on our inland lakes, reservoirs, and rivers provides an additional wide range of choices, if Lake Erie is not an option because of wind, distance, or the lack of an appropriate-size boat.
Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor at the Division of Wildlife's District 2 office in Findlay, offered a lengthy list of inland angling alternatives.
The 75-acre Defiance Reservoir, just three years old, has a strong perch fishery in both size and numbers, Wilkerson said.
"It's a brand new reservoir, but the fish usually grow fast in that kind of situation," he said. "We expect it to be an excellent place to fish for perch, with those original stocked fish in there to now run about nine inches."
Wilkerson also cited the 624 acres of Findlay Reservoir No. 2 as an impoundment that receives regular stocking of yellow perch and supports "lots of nice, big perch." The fisheries folks see Lake LeComte outside Fostoria as another potential angling destination, since its 137 acres hold strong populations of saugeye and channel catfish.
"I think we'll see the fish in all of these locations start to feed more heavily as the water temperature drops," Wilkerson said. "There are quite a few angling opportunities available. Things look like they are picking up in the reservoirs, and in the rivers in the area."
A little more exotic fare is served up in the fall by Ohio's Lake Erie tributary streams that support feisty steelhead. After spending the summer in the lake, the steelhead return to the streams.
Steelhead that have been out in the lake for two or three seasons will average 25 inches in length and weigh in the five-to-six-pound range. The older steelhead can surpass 30 inches in length and weigh more than 10 pounds.
Ohio's best steelhead fishing is found in the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand rivers and in Conneaut Creek. There will also be runs of stray steelhead in the Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Huron, and Black rivers.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.