Ohio tracking those wandering walleyes
Written by The Plain Dealer   
Friday, 31 March 2006 14:02

The majority of the walleyes of Lake Erie gather around the western lake rivers and reefs to spawn in spring, a delight for Ohio anglers, but the prized game fish can play a frustrating game of hide and seek the rest of the year.

Will the massive schools hang around for a while, or will wind and hot weather encourage them to jilt western lake fishermen who count on a summer bonanza?

The sizzling summer of 2005 prompted a woeful tale of Lake Erie walleye fishing along the Ohio coast. Walleye flipped a fin at the torrid temperatures around shallow spawning waters, the Bass Islands and even the sprawling Central Basin. They became a feast for far-away fishermen who probed the deeper, cooler waters off Buffalo, N.Y., and as far north as Michigan's Saginaw Bay.

The big schools of fish are always ready to migrate in search of food and a temperate climate, and in a predictable pattern. The walleye spawning in the Sandusky River prefer to head east; the Maumee River spawners usually head north; and the reef spawners of western Lake Erie - thought to be the largest population -puzzle fisheries experts.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife has tagged walleye for years to determine how far a walleye will swim after spawning. The results have been surprising.

"Walleye are cold-blooded animals," said Jeff Tyson, the head of Lake Erie fisheries management at the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Sandusky Fisheries Research Unit. "They prefer cooler temperatures. The shallow waters of western Lake Erie can be too warm for walleye in the summer."

The Maumee River's jaw-tagged fish were commonly found in Saginaw Bay and in major Ontario rivers flowing to Lake Huron. The Sandusky River walleye seem to head east to deeper central Lake Erie waters. By late summer, they are often found as far east as the Buffalo area of eastern Lake Erie. A small population of walleye spawning in the Grand River at Fairport Harbor also heads east after the spawning season.

The walleye spawning on the western Lake Erie reefs often feast on plentiful bait fish for weeks and even months, especially the smaller walleye. Many will hang around the area all year - but not if the water temperatures soar into the high 70s and low 80s, as they did last summer.

Unfortunately for Ohio fishermen, walleye spawning in other Great Lakes locations aren't interested in a Lake Erie summer vacation. They generally stay close to their spawning grounds, often mixing with visiting Lake Erie walleye.

Walleye stocked in Buffalo-area rivers, including Cattaraugus Creek, Smokes Creek and Van Buren Bay, have no interest in heading west.

The Ohio stocks of walleye are generally found in the deeper waters of eastern Lake Erie," said Tyson.

"The local New York stocks have a tendency to stay closer to shore."

Cleveland fishermen have seen a long summertime slump in walleye fishing, despite having cool, deep water offshore. That could be the result of a declining population of walleye that spawn in the Sandusky River. Spawning habitat below the Ballville Dam in Fremont is in trouble as the prime gravel continues to be covered with silt.

It takes a surge of rainwater to scour the silt from the rock and rubble, a high-water event discouraged by the Ballville Dam. ODOW fisheries biologists would like to see the Ballville Dam go away, opening many more miles of the Sandusky River to spawning walleye.

Walleye relocated above the dam have successfully spawned. Dam removal also would allow spring rains to kick up the river current and improve the river's spawning habitat below the dam.

Tyson believes more walleye are spawning in Sandusky Bay than are heading up the Sandusky River. He could get answers this spring after wildlife crews outfit 50 walleye with transmitters.

Remote receiving stations are set up just below the Sandusky River spawning grounds, at the mouth of the Sandusky River and at the Sandusky Bay Bridge.

"The transmitters will help us to define movement patterns in Sandusky Bay and the Sandusky River," he said.

"We'll get a handle on when they move into the river and how far up the river they go. Some walleye may even winter in the river."

If walleye spend the winter in the river, removal of the Ballville Dam could be a problem. The winter's low waters would be ideal for dam removal and bad for the walleye. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has funds to study the removal of the Ballville Dam.

If an angler catches a walleye with a transmitter, it will be easy to identify.

The antenna is a 2-foot white wire that projects from the fish's belly. If such a walleye is caught, contact Ohio wildlife officials at 419-625-8062.

The regular walleye jaw-tagging program using metal jaw tags ended in 2000, with about 3 percent of the 110,000 tags reported to Ohio wildlife offi- cials.

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