Solid hatches continue for walleye, but yellow perch are struggling

Solid hatches continue for walleye, but yellow perch are struggling
February 22, 2023 James Proffitt, Great Lakes Now

The final 2022 results for Lake Erie walleye are in and the great news for anglers is that walleye hatches remain strong with large populations guaranteed for years to come for the lake’s most-targeted game fish. Meanwhile, yellow perch numbers are good in the far west, while the rest of Ohio’s Lake Erie continues its four-year nosedive.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ young-of-year (YOY) walleye survey shows last year’s spring spawning was once again very good, continuing a five-year run of exceptional hatches. Fisheries biologists define any fish less than one year old as YOY.

While the 2022 hatch didn’t come close to the record-setting 2021 one, it adds another consecutive, highly productive crop of fish to Lake Erie. Its unofficial title, “Walleye Capital of the World,” should remain unscathed for at least another two decades.

The raw trawl numbers

The ODNR combines its trawl numbers with those of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) to provide as complete a picture as possible. This year in the Western Basin, there were 83 fish per hectare (about 2.5 acres.) That’s a 51 percent increase over the 33-year running average of 55 walleye per hectare. It’s also the ninth highest number over that period.

Looking east toward the Central Basin of Lake Erie, netted YOY walleye showed 14 fish per hectare, more than double the long-term average of just six fish.

Yellow perch, often considered great fishing for young kids, fared well in the Western Basin, from Huron west to Toledo and Michigan. Biologists pulled up about 572 YOY per hectare, a 24 percent increase over the long-term average of 461.

But yellow perch news in waters east of Huron was not so good, a continuation of nearly a decade of mostly poor hatches. In Ohio, yellow perch management is divided into three zones: the Western Basin which runs from Huron west, the central zone, from Huron to Fairport Harbor and the east zone, from Fairport Harbor to the Pennsylvania line.

Numbers of yellow perch in the central and east zones were nearly identical, with about three YOY fish per hectare. These zones previously averaged about 38 fish during the 33-year time frame.

Yellow perch: Trawls, models, long-term data, say everything will be okay

“We’ve been here before. Early to mid-90s populations were where they are now and we know from that reference point we can get giant hatches even from these smaller populations,” said Travis Hartman, who overseas the Sandusky Fisheries Research Station. “Back in 1996 we had one of the largest yellow perch hatches we’ve ever seen from the smallest populations we ever had.”

Unlike walleye, which spawn when they feel the water and weather conditions are just right, yellow perch spawn faithfully during a three-week window late April to mid-May no matter what. That leaves their eggs susceptible to severe weather, strong currents and temperatures too hot or too hold for tiny fish to hatch and survive. Ideal water temperature is between about 45 and 58 degrees.

Rainbow trout at the ODNR’s Castalia Fish Hatchery. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

While anglers in Ohio’s central zone have mostly given up on perch fishing during the last several years, anglers in the Western Basin have been faring well, including in 2022.

“Ten years ago I would have told you to go down to the Central Basin if you want good catch rates and big fish. Right now that’s flipped,” Hartman said.

The limit in the west and the east is still 30 perch per day, while the limit in the central zone is 10. Some anglers, citing low perch numbers and creel limits, blame the massive walleye population for decimating yellow perch. But Hartman said that’s not true.

“Although walleye are clearly the top predator and they do eat some yellow perch, they’re just not targeting perch,” he said. “In the Central Basin it’s a lot of smelt and in the west it’s a mix of shad and shiners. And while they may eat a perch out of convenience when they’re in front of them and it’s an easy meal and they just can’t pass it up, they migrate and target soft-ray prey fish which are abundant.”

According to Hartman, one common inquiry his staff receives is whether walleye are healthy.

“We’re always measuring the length of walleye and the weight, so we’re getting a good character of growth rates and I can tell you, walleye in Lake Erie are in great shape,” he said.

Unusually large smelt populations in the Central Basin are providing plenty of food for the walleye. In fact, there’s plenty of food to feed all the fish.

A surprising catch by Fairport Harbor fisheries biologists

During their August surveys, ODNR staff netted an estimated 100 whitefish in one trawl.

“The really interesting thing about it is that we haven’t caught such a huge number of whitefish in about 30 years, and it was almost to the day and in the same location,” said Ann Marie Gorman, fisheries biologist supervisor at the Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Unit, about 30 miles east of Cleveland.

Lake whitefish, a species found mostly in eastern Lake Erie, prefer colder and deeper water. At one time commercial fishermen netted millions of pounds of whitefish from the lake, though since the mid 20th century, that number has declined drastically. More popular in the northern Great Lakes, whitefish have struggled in recent years from the same problem that’s plagued some Lake Erie yellow perch populations: lack of recruitment. Young fish simply aren’t surviving.

The likely culprit is invasive zebra and quagga mussels, of which there are now hundreds of trillions in the Great Lakes. Both filter out phytoplankton which is a food source for zooplankton which is in turn the main source of food for tiny whitefish.

Gorman says whitefish prefer deeper water because physiologically, they thrive in cold water and tend to steer clear of warmer water if possible. But they can still be found in the Western Basin spawning on shallow reefs, usually in December once winter weather sets in and water temperatures drop.

“They’re not usually targeted by anglers in Lake Erie because I think they’re a little bit tough to catch since they feed on small invertebrates on the bottom,” she said.

Another interesting catch during recent trawls: lake sturgeon. “Those reflect those Maumee River stocked fish which are now using the Western Basin,” said Hartman. “The ones we’ve caught are 18 to 22-inch fish. And they’re all tagged, so we know they’re stocked fish.”

Hartman said in recent decades, they netted a sturgeon maybe every five to ten years and now they’ve caught a handful in the past couple years.

Pennsylvania sees growing walleye angling, virtually no yellow perch effort

“Much like everywhere else, we have very robust walleye catch rates,” said Mark Haffley, fisheries biologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Lake Erie Research Unit. “I think the second highest since we’ve been keeping records. Just an incredible amount of walleye here.”

He said the swelling population has brought thousands of anglers north to fish Lake Erie, especially on holidays and weekends.

“In talking with the charter industry, these guys are booking more trips than ever before. Some of our guys are running a hundred trips or more per year,” Haffley said. “I grew up here and lived here my whole life and worked in the charter industry. I molded my career around my love of fishing and Lake Erie. When we started fishing for walleye it was July 4 because there was nothing to fish for until then.”

But he said that’s obviously changed in recent years due to the swelling population and that now, anglers are fishing for walleye in the spring. Traditionally, it wasn’t worth looking for walleye until July because they were scarce till then. Now, folks on Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie waters are catching their daily limit of fish 60 percent of the time in early May — unheard of in years past.

But yellow perch fishing? Not so good, with one exception: Presque Isle Bay. “Lots of large fish that come out of the lake to use the bay as spawning habitat. Incredible catches in November and December,” Haffley said. “I see people catching them from the piers and docks, very accessible to shore anglers and through the ice as well.”

But the catch rate, and the target rate is almost non-existent on the lake proper. “They’re hard to find, hard to catch,” Haffley said. “We do our creel survey every year and I think we had three dedicated to fishing for yellow perch this year out of 400 boat trips.”

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Weighted Walleye: The fallout of the Lake Erie fishing tournament

The Great Lakes-Iceland connection through the 100% Whitefish effort

Featured image: The public gets up-close and personal with fish at the Oden State Fish Hatchery in Alanson, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of MDNR)


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