After very strong walleye hatches in both 2014 and 2015, western Lake Erie this past year was crowded with a huge stock of smaller fish, under the 15-inch minimum size. The experts see those fish providing the foundation for exceptional walleye fishing in the coming years.
PORT CLINTON — We all love to talk about the glory days and recall with excitement those snapshots off the calendar we consider the best of times. We relish the memories and relive those periods when it seemed like the planets were perfectly aligned, the sun always was shining, the fish were biting, and the harvest was overwhelming.
Usually, the predominant thought is it was a rare phenomenon, and we never will experience such exhilaration again, or live to see another sequence of such unlimited excellence. But that might not be the case for those anglers that make Lake Erie their home turf and walleye their fish of choice.
In recent years, when Erie’s walleye fishermen would harken back to the bounty of fish they encountered during the walleye boom of the 1980s and 1990s, they would speak wistfully, as if that explosion of fish was a one-time event, sparked by the ban on commercial fishing for walleye in Ohio waters put in place in the late 1970s.
Now, those same anglers are looking for a repeat — another walleye gold rush — and they see it out there on the horizon.
“The good old days start next year,” exclaimed charter captain Eric Hirzel. “The future of walleye fishing in Lake Erie for the next five to seven years is going to be fantastic!”
The reason for that unbridled optimism, an enthusiastic opinion shared by many, is most of the fish from a couple of outstanding hatches in recent years have now matured into “keeper” size walleye at 15-inches or more in length. While many anglers were temporarily frustrated by all of the small fish in the catch this past summer — there were days where boats went through 100 walleye hook-ups just to see 20 legal-size fish — their frustrations should transform into coolers full of satisfaction in 2018, and beyond.
“We saw definitive proof about a really bright future,” said Hirzel, who operates Erie Gold Fishing Adventures.
Toledo native and walleye pro Ross Robertson had to chuckle this past season each time he heard about the "problem" with all of those small fish out in the lake, knowing what was just around the corner as those young fish fed aggressively and grew quickly.
“Those fish are now 16-to-17 inches long, and according to state, there was more than 100 million of them, just in the 2015 hatch alone,” said Robertson, whose Bigwater Guide Service often targets trophy-size fish. “Most of those throwbacks are now all legal. I think the good problem we will have now is catching the trophy-size fish Lake Erie is known for, with all of these Erie-size ‘eaters’ we now have out there.”
Travis Hartman, who makes monitoring and preserving world class fishery his life’s work as the Lake Erie Program Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said the 2015 walleye hatch is one of the largest ever studied.
“This year’s 2-year-olds started out mostly under the 15-inch size limit and by the end of the season many of them were ‘legal.’ Our angler walleye catch rates were the highest we’ve seen in decades ... so moving forward the walleye outlook is fantastic,” said Hartman, who estimated with so many smaller fish in the lake, around 2 million walleye were released this past season, and about 1 million walleye were harvested.
Captain Mike McCroskey from Hawg Hanger Charters said the volume of fish in the lake’s Western Basin this past year often reminded him of those 100-walleye-a-day times from decades ago. Seeing the incredibly bright future that all of those small fish represented, McCroskey is beyond optimistic about what lies ahead.
“Yes, we were measuring fish all day this past year, but in 2018 they will all be keepers. Those young walleyes were hungry, and once they get some weight on them, we should once again have 100-pound boxes of fish,” he said, referring to a six-man charter party with a hefty limit catch. “The whole bottom of the lake is covered in walleyes.”
Hartman said the robust walleye class of 2003 will continue to provide most of the true trophy fish, but other strong hatch groups in 2007 and 2010, plus the outstanding hatches in 2014 and 2015, will give the lake a veritable smorgasbord for walleye anglers.
“Consistent walleye fishing success in the Western Basin is dependent on having good numbers of young fish in the system, and there will be plenty in the foreseeable future,” Hartman said. “When you consider the now-trophy-sized 2003 year class, and also strong 2007 and 2010 classes, I would argue that we have the best mix of trophy potential and total numbers of fish that we have seen since the 1980’s and early 1990’s.”
Dedicated walleye angler Jim Gracyk shares that bright outlook. “The walleye bite should be lights-out from early spring all the way through next year's first ice,” Gracyk said. “Those 14-inch fish that we were releasing all summer will be great 18-inch keepers. The few remaining 2003 hatch walleyes might produce the next 15-pounder.”
Captain Dave Spangler of Dr. Bugs Charters constantly had to remind the Lake Erie anglers any frustration they experienced with those under-sized walleye in 2017 would be wiped away with the bounty the lake will produce in the coming years.
“Just think about catching 100 walleye a day, day after day,” he said. “No matter what the size of those fish might be, there’s no place else on the planet where you can do that but here on Lake Erie. And those small fish will all be legal keepers in 2018.”
The bonus that came along with the brisk walleye action this past year was an active and productive yellow perch fishery.
“I have been perchin’ since 1968, and this year the perch fishing was the best I’ve seen since then,” McCroskey said.
“Fall perch catch rates were very good, and the grade of fish was the best we have seen in the Western Basin in decades,” Hartman added.
Spangler, another veteran of many seasons on the lake, concurred. “The late-season perch fishing in the Western Basin was again fantastic, with limit catches the rule, even with the lack of shiners,” he said. “The size was also impressive, with 9, 10, 11, and 12-inch fish in the cooler. After four-plus years in a row of good hatches, the next five years should be great as well.”