MAUMEE – In northwest Ohio, the beginning of spring does not set its hopes on the calendar, it rests solely on fish. Specifically: walleye. It’s true.
Dates come and go, and so do groundhogs and weather reports. However, the true indicator of spring is when thousands of men, women and children suddenly appear, waist-deep in the chilly, often muddy waters of the Sandusky and Maumee rivers.
(You read that right: tens of thousands. Really.)
Every spring millions of walleye head upstream from Lake Erie into two Western Basin rivers to spawn: The Maumee, which runs through downtown Toledo; and the Sandusky, which runs through the city of Fremont and out through the long, wide Sandusky Bay.
While the vast majority of fish get intimate on shallow Lake Erie reefs, tons of them hit the rivers’ gravel shallows to spread their love. And it’s the perfect opportunity for anglers from all over the state, region and elsewhere to get up close and personal with Lake Erie’s top predator and most-prized sport fish.
Fisheries managers in the U.S. and Canada have concluded that last year’s spring hatch was the largest since officials began keeping track. And it was big enough to keep folks coming to Lake Erie and its tributaries for great fishing for at least the next 10 years.
While Lake Erie offers year-round angling opportunities for those with boats, friends with boats, or the means to pay for a charter, its abundant walleye population makes itself available to anyone who can get in the rivers or on their banks in early spring.
Rivers of Opportunity
“It certainly is the best opportunity for folks … who either don’t own boats or who have boats that are too small for the lake,” said Eric Weimer, a biologist and supervisor at the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky Fisheries Station.
In turn, folks who may not necessarily get onto the lake proper, still have the opportunity to covet its fish and the lake from the rivers. Which is a good thing. Efforts from some to limit spawn season walleye fishing in the rivers has in the past been rebuffed by wildlife officials.
This year, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources directed its wildlife division to issue an out-of-state Lake Erie permit, costing $11 annually. Those funds, Weimer said, are earmarked specifically for Lake Erie and lake-related fisheries and conservation projects.
Some people seemed to be more than happy to pay the extra bucks. Out-of-state anglers fishing in Ohio waters and the Sandusky and Maumee rivers must purchase the additional license.
“We have a great resource and we know it’s one that is very popular with out-of-staters as well as residents. It’s huge with boaters and non-boaters – we’re actually very lucky to have a resource that is accessible to so many anglers,” Weimer said.
Dam removal opens up river, possibilities
Two years ago, Fremont’s 105-year-old Ballville Dam came down. After years of legal battles, the river dam was finally razed a few years after a new drinking water reservoir was constructed for the city of Fremont. Its absence opened up 20-plus miles of prime walleye spawning habitat for the fish that call Fremont their spring home.
People fishing the river are excited about the change. A radio telemetry project will track lake walleye that may move above the dam site, and fisheries staff plan to monitor above-the-dam catches this season.
Biologists are also interested in seeing whether white bass, which begin spawning in the river just as walleye are leaving, will move above the dam site.
One report already indicates an angler hooked a 3- to 4-foot lake sturgeon above the dam site, which is an exciting tidbit of information, according to Weimer. If verified it would be the first lake sturgeon upstream of the dam in more than a century. What the fish was doing there is a matter of speculation, though. And whether there are more is even more speculative.
Fremont businesses have capitalized on the thousands of out-of-town and out-of-state anglers visiting by offering up an Angler Savings Card. Participating businesses include more than a dozen restaurants and hotels offering discounts and promotions to anglers.
In Maumee and Perrysburg, for a couple months, anglers are treated to pop-up tackle shops and fish-cleaning operations selling everything needed for walleye fishing, except for the fish themselves. That’s up to the anglers – and the fish, who may or may not cooperate.
And that’s why it’s called fishing and not catching.
Featured Image: During the walleye river spawns, boaters and waders mingle peacefully. Photo by James Proffitt