Will the fishing hold?
Written by The News Herald   
Sunday, 17 December 2006 03:40

By anyone's estimate, the 2006 walleye and perch fishing on the Detroit River and Lake Erie was some of the best ever, especially for walleyes. It began last April with some tremendous catches brought in during a number of professional and local walleye tournaments held Downriver and it progressed into a summer of seemingly limitless 15- to 17-inch.

But what about the future? Can this level of fishing success continue or will it decline?

At the recent State of The Strait conference, Michigan DNR fisheries biologist Bob Haas made statements about Lake Erie's fisheries resources that I had never considered before.

"I have several concerns regarding the current fish stocks of Lake Erie," said Haas. "Are they really a result of nature or are they (simply) managed for several species, namely walleye, perch, smallmouth bass and steelhead?

It is an interesting question.

Steelhead, for instance, are not native to the Great Lakes and must be planted in order to maintain their current high numbers.

Smallmouth bass were never the dominate species they have become, perhaps due to clearer water and selective harvest now associated with these fish by tournament anglers.

The same goes for the yellow walleye. At one time, the walleye subspecies known as the blue-pike was dominate over the yellow walleye. Blue-pike however have been extinct in Lake Erie since the early 1960s.

The problem here is that these four species of fish more or less "pay the bills" by keeping license fees pouring into state coffers.

Michael Thomas is a DNR biologist assigned to the Lake St. Clair Research Station. He grew up in the Downriver area and frequently fishes the Detroit River and Lake Erie.

Given his position and background, Thomas has a unique perspective on the local fishery

"The Detroit River-Lake Erie walleye population is expected to decline from about 46 million at the start of 2006 to about 31 million at the start of 2007," Thomas said.

"This is largely a function of another weak (2005) yearclass recruiting to the fishery as age 2 fish (the 2005 yearclass. The 2003 yearclass will continue to carry the fishery in 2007, accounting for roughly 60 percent of the population.

"The good news is that those age 2003 fish are nice sized fish (20 to 24 inches). The bad news for Michigan anglers is that those bigger, older trophy walleye tend to be more migratory so they spend less time in Michigan waters.

"As you know, big walleye also tend to be harder to catch than young-small walleye.

"I expect walleye fishing will still be good in Southeast Michigan next year, but it won't be anywhere near as good as the last two years have been."

Thomas added that further decline should be predicted for 2008 as the 2006 walleye yearclass also looks to be weak.

"We really need at least a good hatch in 2007 or we could be in dire straits by 2009," Thomas said.

Dire straits is exactly what convinced Ontario and the states surrounding Lake Erie to rethink their fishing regulations and to make the dramatic changes beginning back in 2002.

Yellow perch tend to be nearly everyone's favorite table fare and recently local populations of these fish have been at high levels.

Perch fishing has been nothing short of phenomenal. Anglers got a jumpstart on these tasty fish due to a very mild winter. There was

very little ice cover and the Detroit River was accessible to boats all winter.

Anglers took advantage by catching perch in the many canals that line the Detroit River.

The waters along the shoreline of Grassy Island also were perch hotspots during cool weather.

Thomas said Perch numbers, like walleye numbers, will likely trend lower.

"The 2004 yellow perch hatch was weak, so there will be fewer from that class," said Thomas.

"So the average size of yellow perch available for anglers in 2007 will go up, but the numbers will be down.

"The overall population abundance for yellow perch in the western basin was 77 million in 2005 and down to 48 million fish in 2006.

"The downward trend will continue in 2007."

Despite the above forecast, which may sound like gloom and doom, local waters of Lake Erie and the Detroit River will provide world-class walleye, perch, and smallmouth bass fishing comparable to anywhere in North America during 2007 and beyond.

"Weather is the key here," said Thomas. "We need mild stuff without high winds and raging currents, that allows for good spawning results to occur on Lake Erie."
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