Long, cold winters benefit Erie fish

Nobody likes long, nasty, cold winters, but they work pretty well for Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch.

Walleye and yellow perch spawn better and produce more vigorous offspring when Lake Erie is colder longer, according to Dr. Elizabeth Marshall, professor in the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory at Ohio State University.

Marshall and other scientists presented a range of reports about Lake Erie’s water quality, habitat and fish populations to anglers and other interested people at the Lake Erie Central Basin Sport Fish Summit in Painesville.

The audience learned more about the effects of the infamous annual algae blooms in Erie’s western basin, low oxygen zones, the history of cooperative management by the U.S. states and Canadian province with Erie shorelines and other vital information.

You and I abhor the long Ohio winters, but they are good for Lake Erie walleyes and perch. The temperature of the walleye population’s maternal winter environment has a direct correlation with the success of the annual spawn, hatch and fry survival, Marshall reported.

She presented data that indicate the colder the winter and the longer the ice cover lingers into February and March, the better it is for walleye offspring. Ice cover and the subsequent colder water contribute to higher recruitment – hatchling survival to one year – for walleye and perch, Marshall said. That is because the eggs grow larger and the surviving larvae swim faster sooner.

Conversely, after shorter and milder winters, female perch produce smaller eggs, lower hatch success and decreased larvae survival, the professor said.

All of this adds up to swings in spawn success and ultimately in the success anglers have when they fish Lake Erie.

The big lake has a long history of ups and downs.

Roger Knight, fishery management specialist for Great Lakes Fishery Commission, reported Lake Erie is at its finest.

“Today, sport harvest of walleyes exceeds the peak commercial fishing in the early 1900s,” Knight said. “The populations are more sustainable. The implementation of better perch management in the 1990s is leading to more sustainability for them, too.”

While 9- and 10-pound walleye were common in 1900, by 1942 they were rare, and from 1941 to 1961 the walleye hatches were weak due to overharvest.

“Few females matured,” Knight said.

Commercial fishing started on Lake Erie in 1812. Blue pike, saugers and cisco were prized quarry for the netters. By 1915, fishers’ focus shifted to perch and whitefish. Fishing towns dotted the shoreline in the early 20th century, and few believed Erie could be overfished.

But it could and it was. Populations declined and species were wiped out. Erie lost all of its lake trout, cisco, blue pike and saugers.

The lake’s habitat declined, and sea lampreys got into Erie by the 1920s and encountered little predatory competition.

Fortunately for the fish and the people who love to catch them, the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York, and Ontario, Canada, began cooperating on policies and regulations.

Cooperative management has yielded huge results, and today Lake Erie productivity is near if not better than its best years ever. The lake is full of walleyes of all year classes, including numerous 18- to 20-year-old specimens, which are true trophy-class fish.


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