Though winter has hung on tenaciously through February and cabin fever is high, fishermen can take heart - walleye should start their initial spawning runs up the Maumee and Sandusky rivers from Lake Erie in the next couple of weeks.
Also, tomorrow marks the beginning of a new license-year in Ohio, which means anglers will need to purchase 2010 licenses before venturing out streamside - or for any late-winter ice fishing on ponds.
So while waiting for the rivers to run free and warm up a few degrees, get a license and tune up your tackle.
Water temperatures in the Maumee still were hovering in the low to mid-30s last week, and it takes temperatures in the low to mid-40s for the walleye runs to fire up. Mike Wilkerson, a fisheries biologist with Ohio Wildlife District 2, noted that usually occurs the last week of March or the first week of April.
Of course, some years with milder Februarys a few anglers take some of the early male "scouts" well ahead of the main runs. That is not the case this winter.
But, Wilkerson said, "last year was a phenomenal year [on the Maumee] and this year should be just as good." In the 2009 run, anglers creeled more than 57,000 walleye under favorable fishing conditions.
That is well above the average of 33,000 fish a run in the last decade for the Maumee, and well above the long-term catch of 20,000 to 25,000 fish. Fully 90 percent of the fish taken in the 2009 run were males, Wilkerson noted.
"The [much larger] females sit in the deeper water and don't do much until after dark," the biologist noted. That occurs after legal fishing hours in March and April on the favored stretches of the Maumee and Sandusky rivers.
Wilkerson said none of the special rules for spring stream fishing for walleye has changed this year - from sunrise-sunset legal hours to no treble hooks, no keeping of foul-hooked fish, a 15-inch minimum keeper length, a daily creel limit of four walleye, and so on. Complete details are outlined in the annual digest of fishing regulations, available free where licenses are sold, or by visiting on-line at wildohio.com.
"The run hasn't changed much, but people were catching a lot more," Wilkerson said of the 2009 experience. Weather, of course, has a lot to do with that. Lots of rain and high flows, or too little rain and too-low flows all affect the fishing.
The Sandusky River run will continue to limp along as a shadow of its former self, "former" meaning prior to the channelization of the river and elimination of much spawning habitat some 40 years ago with the construction of the Fremont floodwalls and dikes. That status likely will not change until the removal, possibly by 2013, of the Ballville Dam as part of project for an upground water supply reservoir for the city.
The dam removal will open more than 20 miles of stream, all the way to Tiffin, for walleye spawning. In any case, the Fremont run in 2009 resulted in a catch of just 3,800 fish, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife. That was up slightly from the 3,200 average of recent years.
Wilkerson said the remaining fish of the 2003 mega-class again will dominate the runs in both rivers with fish of 19 to 28 inches, the males among the smaller fish and the females the larger. Some of the fish in the run may be as old as 25 years, based on new aging techniques that can analyze a fish's otoliths, bony structures in a walleye's ears that function like ear drums.
The upcoming walleye runs undoubtedly will occur under a cloud of concern about the recent years of poor hatches for the Lake Erie stocks overall, which includes the rivers.
But even the 57,000 fish taken from the Maumee in 2009 are a small fraction of the run. Data collected by biologists show that just four per cent of the annual walleye catch in Ohio's waters of Lake Erie and tributaries comes from the rivers and spring jig-and-minnow season on the near-shore reefs of the western basin of the lake.
What is needed to replenish overall Lake Erie walleye stocks, state fisheries managers steadfastly maintain, are a couple of good spawning seasons, back to back.
"If closing the spring fishery would fix it, it would have been closed 20 years ago," said Ray Petering, the top fisheries administrator in the state wildlife division. "It's just not the answer but if it was, we'd do it."
Petering acknowledged concern about the declines in walleye stocks are high in fishing circles. "Everybody's frustrated, including the division of wildlife."
But he maintained the division's decisions are and must be based "on the absolute best science available at the moment, and that's what we're going to go with. The science doesn't point to the egg-drop [by female spawners] as being the problem.
"When [weather] conditions are conducive to a good hatch, there are enough [fertile] eggs to have a good year-class. This is not politics or a popularity contest."
In late March, the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission will hold its annual meeting to assess the status of the walleye fishery and determine the total allowable catch for the year.
That catch will be apportioned into quotas for each of the lake's stakeholders - Ohio, Ontario, Michigan. New York, and Pennsylvania, with Ohio and Ontario receiving the lion's share.
The division of wildlife has established a daily catch-table for anglers, now ensconced in the Ohio Administrative Code and based on the best-science-available principle.
The table calls for a daily creel limit of four fish in March and April and six the rest of the year as long as the Ohio quota for a given year is 950,000 or higher. The limit would drop to four in March and April and five the rest of the year if the quota drops to between 850,000 and 950,000. Lower quotas than that are even more restrictive.
But no changes are applied annually until after the Lake Erie Committee quotas are set and are made effective each May 1. So for the spring river runs, the limit will stay at four this year - unless you decide personally to just catch-and-release, or not to fish at all.
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