The Eastern Lake Erie
Fishing Forecast

Joe Fischer

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Some things change while many things remain the same. This statement sums up the initial forecast for Eastern Lake Erie for the year 2001. The overall fishing in the year 2000 was poor especially for walleye and bass in the eastern basin. Offshore walleye fishing (5-10 miles offshore) did have a period of approximately 6 weeks in July and August where the migratory western Basin walleye produced excellent fishing for experienced Lake Erie walleye fishermen. During this time frame the aforementioned fishermen "locked in" to a migratory school of large stationary female walleyes off the Cattaraugus Creek which resulted in many limit catches of walleyes between 5 and 10 pounds. Getting deep and away from the boat by using Dipsy Divers, wire line, Jet Planers, etc. was effective with worm harnesses, body baits and spoons the baits of choice.

"This was my worst year bass fishing in probably 10 years" commented veteran bass fisherman J. Hanley, who also hosts a TV fishing show in Buffalo. This statement sums up the Eastern Basin smallmouth bass fishing for 2000. The general opinion is that the weather played a big role in the poor bass fishing with a cold wet spring followed by a below average temperature during the summer. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) also felt that the recent population of the Round Goby, which the bass feed on, probably played a role in the poor season.

"2001 looks a little better than last year for the near shore walleye fishery as many of the excellent 1998 class year walleye will be legal size and these fish for the most part tend to stay in shallower water in the eastern basin fishery" commented William Culligan, DEC Chief of Lake Erie fisheries at Dunkirk. The near shore springtime night fishermen off Hamburg and Dunkirk should see a lot of these fish with the average size being 15-18". "The growth rate of this excellent class year appears to be good and compares favorably with previous class years" stated W. Culligan. The 1998 class year by the way, is the best since the landmark 1984 class year, which continues to supply walleyes to the eastern basin.

For many years the migration of the western basin walleyes to the east has started later in the year going from early June in the 1980’s to late July last year. The size of the migratory schools has also diminished considerably in size but the fish overall are larger. This will probably be the case once again in 2001! The walleyes and bass are eating the Round Goby, which might play a role in the type of bait and color offered to the fish. Based on all of the above data I believe that the Eastern Basin offshore fishery will once again be excellent only for a brief period of time depending on the weather.

The above forecast for this year’s Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin walleye fishery and the downward trend this fishery has been on might change in the very near future! The Lake Erie committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission is working on an overall plan to reduce exploitation of the walleye fishery by all of Lake Erie’s stakeholders. They agree that the fishery is not in a crisis mode but feel that it is better to be proactive now to reverse the downward trend of the walleye population in recent years. The Lake Erie Committee recognizes the fact that the phenomenal fishery of the 1980’s will probably never be duplicated but by prudently lowering walleye harvest rates the fishery should reverse its present alarming trend. This would be excellent news for the Eastern Basin as most of its summer offshore fishery depends on migrating walleyes from the western basin.

While parts of this initiative are still evolving some walleye conservation regulations are already in place for 2001:

1. Ohio is reducing the daily walleye creel limit during the spring season from 10 to 4. The summer creel limit will be reduced from 10 to 6.

2. The Province of Ontario will reduce its commercial harvest of walleye. The reduction could be in the neighborhood of 1-1.5 million fish! They will also allow only 6% of these fish to be harvested during the spring season. The past practice allowed the commercials to harvest 50% of their quota in the spring. This would go a long way in protecting the fish during spawning season. The sport fishing daily creel limit will be reduced from 5 to 4.

3. Michigan is reducing their sportfishing daily creel limit on walleyes from 10 to 6.

4. Pennsylvania and New York are still working on their proposals with New York locked into a 2-year cycle before new regulations can be instituted.

Hopefully all of Lake Erie stakeholders can come up with an acceptable agreement for everyone and the current trend in walleye fishing can be reversed. Something needs to be done or we are definitely heading slowly in the direction of the ill-fated Nova Scotia fishery off Canada’s eastern coastline. This fishery crashed because for many years the stakeholders could not come to a viable agreement on management of the fishery.

The eastern basin smallmouth bass fishery should rebound from the poor year experienced in 2000. NYSDEC fall netting and trawling surveys show a good population of mature smallmouths still exists. In fact the fall surveys were still one of the highest in the last 20 years. As previously stated it appears that the weather and possibly the appearance of the Round Goby as a food source played major roles in the poor results in 2000. The aggressive Round Goby’s total effect on the fishery in the Eastern basin will be monitored closely as they have been a prime suspect in the precipitous drop off in smallmouth fishing in the Ohio and Pennsylvania fisheries.

The yellow perch also appears to be on the rebound if the fall NYSDEC surveys are correct. The yellow perch is excellent table fare and is prized by many veteran Eastern Basin Lake Erie anglers. The DEC did find these fish in much deeper water (70-80 feet) than previously possibly due to the extreme water clarity. The excellent class year of 1998 should enhance the mature yellow perch population this year.

Last but not least, the muskie population around the Buffalo Harbor and upper Niagara River continues to be stable. In the fall of 2000 quite a few muskies in the 50-inch range were caught with the largest reportedly exceeding 54"! Without a doubt this is a unique muskie fishery which is producing occasional world class size muskies. Fishing in the late fall in the Buffalo area is only for the hearty few but the rewards are well worth the inconveniences.

This forecast can obviously change as the many variables such as weather, exotic species, water levels and variables unknown to us at the present time all have an effect on Lake Erie’s ecosystem. Lake Erie’s large, diverse ecosystem however, is being monitored closely by the best marine biologists who are devoted to preserving and improving the lake for future generations.