Lake Erie again is teaching a valuable lesson to anglers that often seems too hard to understand: You cannot stockpile fish.
You can make educated estimates of how many fish of a given species conservatively may be taken without harm each year. Which is just what is done under an annual, international, cooperative agreement within the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Catch-regulations are set accordingly.
But you cannot tell the weather to be ideal during spawning time. And as lake men know, it could not have been worse last spring, especially during May, the critical month for spawning/hatching/early growth of walleye and yellow perch.
To make a long story short, the sport fishing for walleye and yellow perch, the lake's top two prizes, should be good this year. Weather permitting. But the fisheries are going to take a hit in 2004 because of a horribly poor hatch, especially for walleye, in 2002.
“The  walleye hatch was the absolute worst in history,” said Roger Knight, Lake Erie program manager for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
That translates into lousy overall fishing potential in 2004, because annually the mainstays of the walleye fishery are two-year-olds. Fish numbers in a given year-class decline over time, whether fish are hooked or netted or not. Weather, predators, disease, and related factors all take a toll.
Knight said that it will be mid-summer before assessments are complete and a decision is made whether to further reduce the current “four-and-six” daily creel limit for walleye - four in March and April, six the rest of the year. But the virtual lack of a class of two-year-old fish - the 2002 class - foretells tough sledding overall next year.
The other side of the coin is, Ohio has been catching nowhere near its annual allotment of 1.7 million walleye, about half the lakewide total, during a three-year GLFC conservation plan.
Fishermen took just 700,000 fish last year and about a million in 2001. Which means that even with a possibly reduced quota for 2004 - early guesses are in the range of 50 per cent - Ohio's take may be in the ballpark anyway with no changes in creel limit.
The 1999 and 2001 year-classes both were good to excellent, and have been carrying the fishery, given a poor year in 2000 and a non-year in 2002. The success or failure of the hatch this year could be critical for the longer term.
“If we get a good hatch this year, it will give us a good reading on the future,” Knight noted. “Mid-April to mid-May is going to be the critical period. I just hope for warm, calm, weather.” Cold northeasters wreck spawning. On the other hand, the lake holds enough walleye to do the job - at least as many as those which produced the mega-class of 1982 under ideal weather and lake-level conditions.
Knight noted that in addition to weather, the environmental impacts of invasive, aquatic nuisance species such as gobies and zebra mussels have had adverse impacts on the fisheries as well. “No one can tell you for sure what they've done with the whole [lake-fisheries] system.”
Another complication is the current extended low-water cycle. Knight noted that the big walleye boom of the early and mid 1980s, with the “monster” walleye class of 1982, occurred during a high-water cycle. “So there's a little bit of gloom and doom here [for 2004 and beyond].
On the yellow perch front, the situation is somewhat brighter. Excellent fishing potential exists this year, and the lakewide take has been set at 9.9 million pounds, up about 570,000 pounds over 2002. Ohio's share is 4.3 million under the sharing formula in use, about 200,000 higher than 2002.
Still, the perch hatch in 2002 was poor and the lakewide quota may be cut in 2004, Perch enter the fishery at age three, so the larger impact of the poor 2002 class will not be felt until 2005, Knight said. However, he pledged there would be no cut in the 30-a-day creel limit for sport anglers next year.
The In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail again begins its season on western Lake Erie with the $280,000 Eastern Pro-Am, scheduled for April 16 through 18 and based along the waterfront at Port Clinton.
Last year at the Eastern Pro-Am here, pro Ted Takasaki set a one-day PWT record for five walleyes at 53.2 pounds, and tournament-winning pro Tommy Skarlis set a record three-day catch at 138.28 pounds.
The event also recorded 346 walleyes of more than 10 pounds, and records for the most walleye of more than 12 pounds, 21, and more daily catches of five fish weighing more than 40 pounds, 150. The average walleye entered last year also was a record, 7.9 pounds.
On Saturday, PWT pro Johnnie Candle will present a youth fishing clinic at 7 p.m. at the Our Guest Inn and Suites in downtown Port Clinton.
Volunteers still are needed to assist with launching boats, weigh-in events, and scoring in the PWT. Daily launching will take place at West Harbor public ramp, and weigh-in at Waterworks Park in downtown Port Clinton.
For youth-clinic details and to volunteer to work at the Pro-Am, call the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau at 419-734-4386 or 1-800-441-1271.
A Maumee River walleye contest through April 15 has been initiated by Gander Mountain, 1320 South Holland-Sylvania Rd. River fish only are eligible and must be measured at the store the day of the catch. Top prize is a trophy, a $50 gift certificate, and dinner for two. Call Mark Nowak or Ray Willard for details, 419-861-4800.
Fisheries authorities in Ohio and Kentucky have agreed to allow anglers in both states to fish either side of the Ohio River with a single fishing license from their state of residence, the Ohio Division of Wildlife said. The agreement does not include embayments or tributary streams.
The two states also have unified regulations in effect for bass, walleye, sauger, crappie, muskellunge, striped hybrid and white bass.