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If walleye fishing is to return to '98 level, prayers could help a lot

If you're a Lake Erie walleye fisherman and in a Sunday-church mood, pray for fewer baitfish, fair weather, slightly murky water, but enough water in the channel to leave the dock.

Those might be the ingredients necessary to help improve the walleye catching in 2000.

Unfavorable weather, too many gizzard shad, clear water, and falling lake levels all had negative impacts on the '99 sport catch.

Just a million walleye were taken - about half the 1998 catch.

"And don't forget the mayflies,'' added Roger Knight, Lake Erie fisheries research supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

The return of huge hatches of mayflies to the lake - because of a much cleaner lake - have added to the food base for all fish, walleye included. And that may make them less apt to strike nightcrawlers or plastic crankbaits.

Knight noted that there will be slightly fewer walleye in the lake in 2000 because of a smaller year-class in 1998 than in 1997. Two-year-old fish typically are the backbone of the Erie walleye fishery.

"But that doesn't mean the fishing will be as tough as a year ago.''

Despite some public contentions that the walleye "just aren't there,'' Knight said the lake has sufficient fish to catch if conditions allow.

One of the major reasons for poor catching in 1999 was the great numbers of gizzard shad present.

Since walleye generally feed on young-of-year shad, it is not yet known how many will be in the forage base until the 2000 hatch. A good number of shad died in the cold spell last winter.

If the current warming trend continues and wind patterns remain fair - with an absence of strong, cold northeast storms, the catching can improve, the biologist noted.

"We'll have to wait and see. It's anybody's guess right now.''

The biologist noted that even though the sport-catching was difficult in 1999, state fisheries biologists last year recorded some of the best test-net sampling data in the 1990s.

The 1996 walleye year-class still will be prominent in the Erie fishery this year as 18 to 20-inchers. Some 1991, 1993, and 1994 fish should round out the catch of fish to 26 inches and larger.

Conservation measures have helped two other Lake Erie species, yellow perch and smallmouth bass.

Knight noted that perch stocks are continuing to recover from critical lows a decade or so ago, and a 30-fish daily creel limit remains in effect for 2000.

"We're heading to the edge of the woods,'' he stated.

The perch fishery remains strongly dependent on the excellent 1996 year-class, which is in the 9 to 10-inch range now.

All 1996 perch should spawn this year, though some began in 1999, Knight said.

The 1998-year-class will add somewhat to the fishery of seven and eight-inch fish. The 1999 year-class, which was a good one and similar to 1994 but not equal to 1996, will not figure in the sport catch this year.

New bass regulations - principally a 14-inch minimum keeper length and five-fish daily creel limit - are expected to cut the 2000 smallmouth take by half.

Last year some 74,000 Erie smallmouth were kept by sport anglers, according to division figures.

As with walleye, the smallmouth situation is complex.

Not only has fishing pressure dramatically increased, but the explosion of an alien pest fish, the round goby, has impacted the Erie smallmouth.

Gobies are tremendous egg predators, and bass lured off a nest may see their eggs disappear into goby stomachs in just a minute or two, according to Knight.

u8195'20"The gobies are the wild card here.''

As it is biologists have yet to be able to measure the success of a given year's hatch until the bass start showing up in the fishery later. But they do know that bad weather at spawning time alone can hurt the hatch.

"One significant storm event can ruin them,'' Knight noted, explaining how. strong waves and storm surges can wash eggs from nests.

Such weather events may be more important than gobies, he added.

That said, fisheries managers will continue to monitor bass fishing pressure. If it increases even more, additional regulatory restrictions may be necessary.

The next step, Knight suggested, could be some initial rules to protect the spawning season, such as catch-and-release only.

However, he stressed, "we're not close (to those) yet.''

The Ohio Department of Health has issued its annual advisory for consumption of sport fish statewide.

Revisions or new listings for 2000 include the following:

For Lake Erie, common carp now may be eaten once a month, while channel catfish under 16 inches and lake trout should not be eaten more than once every two months.

Suggested Lake Erie walleye consumption remains at a meal a week, with no restrictions on yellow perch.

A shirt-pocket pamphlet summarizing the advisories, which are conservative, is available free at fishing license outlets.

Or call the Ohio Department of Health toll-free, 1-800-755-4769, or check the agency's Internet page at www.odh.state.oh.us

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