Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.
As daylight lengthens and water temperatures slowly begin to warm, walleye overwintering in Lake Erie take their cue that it is time to spawn.
Each spring, as many as 10 million walleye leave the deeper areas of Lake Erie and ascend the Detroit River in search of rocky substrates to spawn on, creating a fishing frenzy known throughout North America.
Walleye are considered a cool water fish that successfully live in a wide array of habitats across the northern latitudes of North America. They are spring spawners, beginning reproduction when water temperatures reach about 44 degrees Fahrenheit. As juveniles, they consume animal plankton, aquatic insects and other small fish, but as they mature and take their position at the top of the food web, they shift their diets to predominately small-bodied fish. As a top predator, walleye can alter the structure of small-bodied prey fish communities within a lake because of how many fish they can consume.
These elongated perch-like fish have a dark green back, golden yellow sides and a white belly. The top or dorsal fin is divided into two parts – the front or anterior part of this fin is spiny, while the rear or posterior part is soft. One of the most distinctive physical features of walleye is their large, marble-like, glowing eyes, caused by the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer of pigment that allows it to see prey at night and in deeper, dark water. This ability to see well at low light, along with a large mouth with long teeth, allows them to fill their role as a top predator in the Detroit River and western Lake Erie food webs.
Walleye are also considered a good indicator of aquatic ecosystem health because of their position at the top of the food web. Back in 1978, the walleye population of Lake Erie was considered in a crisis state by the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission – the organization responsible for coordinated management of the fishery between Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario. Today, the walleye population is considered recovered and in a good state with four times the number of walleye aged two and older in Lake Erie than in 1978.
In addition to their ecological role in the Detroit River and Lake Erie, walleye also support important commercial and recreational fisheries.
Both Lake Erie and Detroit River are considered part of the “Walleye Capital of the World.” In Ohio, the walleye, perch and bass fishing industry in Lake Erie is estimated to be worth over $1 billion annually. The Detroit River is a consistent, major draw for walleye anglers, particularly during the spring spawning run. Detroit River walleye tournaments have landed walleye weighing in at 12 to 14 pounds.
During these major spring walleye fishing tournaments, so many fishing boats ply the Trenton Channel of the Detroit River that someone could almost cross the channel by hopping from boat to boat.
It should be no surprise that walleye fishing on the Michigan side of the lower Detroit River alone brings in more than $1 million to local Downriver communities each spring. Professional walleye tournaments sponsored by FLW Outdoors offer over $500,000 in prize money. Ontario’s Lake Erie commercial fishery has an economic impact of $244 million (in Canadian dollars), and Wheatley, Ontario, located just east of Leamington and Point Pelee National Park, is home to the largest freshwater commercial fishing industry in the world. It is the goal of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s Lake Erie Committee to maintain the walleye population and support sustainable these commercial and recreational fisheries.
To help restore target species and sustain the fisheries of the Detroit River and Lake Erie, nine spawning reefs have been constructed in the Detroit River for lithophilic or “rock-loving” spawners like walleye, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish and others. Monitoring by fishery biologists has shown that all reefs have been successful.
To capture walleye passion, Downriver Walleye Federation was established to bring walleye fishermen that ply the Detroit River and Lake Erie together to exchange ideas and information about walleye fishing. It convenes monthly meetings that attract over 100 anglers and include engaging speakers. Throughout the year, members compete against each other in walleye tournaments. Tournament fees are low, and competition is high. Club members have substantial experience in river jigging, handlining – an old fishing technique that uses a hand motion to move a lure or bait up and down off the river bottom using a plastic-coated wire and a heavy weight – and Lake Erie deep water walleye fishing tactics that they are willing to share with all.
But you do not have to own a boat to participate in this walleye frenzy. Fishing piers in Belle Isle State Park in Detroit, Bishop Park in Wyandotte and the recently opened Refuge Gateway to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in Trenton offer compelling shore fishing experiences. The Refuge Gateway pier extends 775 feet into the Detroit River and is one of the premier shore fishing facilities in all the Great Lakes. And it is free, universally accessible – meaning it is accessible to all people, including those with disabilities – and open seven days a week during daylight hours.
“The fishing pier is truly exceptional and will help inspire the next generation of anglers,” said Chris McCulley, president of Downriver Walleye Federation. “Whether it’s catching a trophy walleye or filling a bucket during the silver bass run, the fishing pier is sure to develop lasting memories.”
So, the next time you drive along the Detroit River or visit your favorite riverfront destination in spring, look for those walleye fishermen and ponder for a moment about the spring walleye migration that provides a walleye fishing frenzy right in our backyard.
John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as the Great Lakes Science-Policy Advisor for the International Association for Great Lakes Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, where he worked as the refuge manager until his retirement.
Catch more on Great Lakes Now:
Featured image: 13-pound walleye caught in the lower Detroit River during a Downriver Walleye Federation tournament (Photo Credit: Downriver Walleye Federation)