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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Wildlife officials cling to 3-fish goal

The sticky issue when it comes to Ohio's proposed additional restrictions in Lake Erie sport fishing regulations centers on a reduction from four to three in the daily creel limit for walleye in March and April.

But don't expect the Ohio Division of Wildlife to alter its course toward the three-limit, at least based on what it has heard so far.

That, in a nutshell, summarizes Thursday night's wildlife hearings, held to air an array of proposals but principally those governing Lake Erie walleye and smallmouth bass. Modestly to sparsely attended hearings in the region were held at Sandusky and Findlay.

The proposed plan to close the Erie bass possession season generally has been well accepted as a way to conserve spawning bass on nests. The plan would, however, allow catch-and-release fishing between May 1 and the third Saturday in June.

An additional proposal since June, to set a single-hook rule in March and April in Maumee and Sandusky bays - to eliminate snag-prone treble hooks, as is done already in the rivers - has received good support.

A proposed 15-inch minimum keeper size for walleye lakewide and in lake tributaries, such as the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, also has been accepted, if sometimes grudgingly. Critics contend that many undersize fish under the rule would be wasted because of hook injuries or because they are played out when taken by trolling.

Overall, virtually no disagreement has arisen as to a need for lakewide conservation of walleye stocks and a reduction in the annual catch by all lake jurisdictions. The stickler is the three-fish limit in March and April, with a six-fish limit, as now, the rest of the year.

“It's the same as the last [wildlife] meeting we had,” asserted Russ Merrihew, president of the 45-member Western Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. “They're not listening. It's already etched in stone what they're going to do.”

Bob Collins, president of the 780-member Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, added that state fisheries managers still have to prove that a March-April three-limit is the only way they can accomplish a goal of reducing the Ohio annual catch.

Collins contends that when the Ohio Division of Wildlife reduced the March-April limit to four, most charter guides lost 10 to 20 per cent of their spring business. Some baitshop operators claim they saw a 60 per cent loss in business in those months.

The LECBA spokesman predicted that upcoming increases in fishing license fees in 2004, in concert with the lower spring walleye limit, will produce further economic losses for sport fishing businesses.

Charter fishermen generally contend that the reduced annual walleye take can be achieved by a four-fish limit from, say, Sept. 1 to May 1, and a five or six-fish limit during the summer.

Collins also contends that the wildlife division further does not have enough creel clerks afield, especially in the spring, to properly survey the sport catch. Commercial walleye netting has been banned in Ohio waters for years.

Very little has been heard from spring stream walleye fishermen on the issue. Three fish apparently is enough for them.

In fact, most days it is hard enough to catch three walleye in the Maumee or Sandusky rivers - legally, that is, inasmuch as fish not hooked inside the mouth must be released immediately.

Some anglers also may be happy enough to be easing winter's cabin fever by getting out to fish - the best reason for it, anyway - without worrying about how many they catch. Others may figure that three in the stream is enough because that can catch six on the lake in summer. Whatever.

Collins said that most of the opposition to the three-limit is coming from western and “far western” basin charter captains.

Steve Gray, state wildlife chief, who is responsible for final proposals to the rules-making Ohio Wildlife Council, said that no compelling case has been made so far to change his mind.

But, he added, “we're going to continue to look at what they[opponents] gave us last night [Thursday], and we're going to talk about it next week ... The bottom line is how many fish we're going to take that time of year.”

Gray added, “The [proposal] process isn't closed.” A statewide hearing on the proposed rules is set for Sept. 18 in Columbus, and the Wildlife Council is expected to consider the final plan on Oct. 18.

Roger Knight, the wildlife division's Lake Erie program coordinator, said that the proposed walleye rules have three goals: To preserve fishing opportunity for all parties, stream and lake fishermen alike; to conserve native stocks of fish in their seasonally segregated groups - Maumee River fish, Sandusky River fish, reef fish, and so on; and to honor Ohio's commitment to the overall lakewide walleye conservation plan agreed to by all parties on the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“We could have done it [achieved the conservation goal] with a four-fish year-round limit. That would do it. I'm not insensitive to their [charter guides'] economic pain. That's why we're trying to make fishing better at peak times.” The best fishing of the year, he contended, is during June and July, when the wildlife division proposes to maintain a six-fish limit.

“It's not a female issue,” he added, referring to contentions that reduced limits in the fall would “save” larger female fish for the following spring spawn.

“The [walleye] cupboards aren't bare [now],” he asserted, “because of the action three years ago.” That is when the division reduced the March-April creel-limit from six fish to four. “We're looking at the yellow perch model of management - a cooperative, interagency process.”

When yellow perch stocks were dwindling in the early 1990s, an aggressive conservation plan was developed lakewide and each lake state and Ontario took a hit. The Ohio contribution included a 30-perch daily sport limit, introduced March 1,1996, down from 50 fish. It still is in effect, along with a reduced commercial quota.

While the state's quota has increased and the handful of commercial netters has been allowed more perch each year, the sport limit through the period has remained at 30, but that is because when perch are more abundant, more and more sport fishermen go after them more often.

So the overall sport quota still is being taken, even though an individual fisherman still is limited each day.

For the record, Ohio Lake Erie walleye proposals likely will remain the most lenient on the lake. Michigan is proposing a 15-inch keeper minimum, a walleye-season closure in April and May, and a five-limit the rest of the year in its Lake Erie waters.

Pennsylvania has proposed a four-fish limit year-round, with an 18-inch minimum keeper size, and a season closure from March 15 to the first Saturday in May. New York has a four-fish limit, 15-inch minimum size, and closure March 15 to the first Saturday in May.

Ontario has yet to set its reduced commercial quota and sport fishing restrictions, but is said to be considering reduced sport limits and a season closure as well.

An upside to these issues is that lakewide reductions should be in place in time to make the most of what is a very promising 2003 year-class of walleye, to use it as a solid base for rebuilding stocks. The 2003 fish will be large enough to enter the sport fishery in 2005.

The state's summer trawls “look really good,” said Knight. “They're still crunching numbers but we should have some very good news in the near future.”



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