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Fishing groups recruited to contribute to walleye research

John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Outdoors

ERIE, Pa. -- I tried worm harnesses, shiny spoons and plugs. We adjusted my Dipsy and lowered the downrigger. No matter what we tried, Ron Milavec of Upper St. Clair, Pa., and I could not figure out why he was catching bigger walleye on his side of the boat.

"Ha! Another," he said, dropping a plump 'eye across his measuring stick before tossing the 23-incher overboard.

I smiled and said nothing, turned toward my rods and studied the tips for any sign that there may be a fish on the line. By mid-day we'd each released about a dozen walleye -- my catches included a nice 20-inch 'eye and at least a half-dozen white bass. My host Milavec charted the trolling course, noted the electronic markers, rigged the lines, dropped the riggers on both sides of his 17 1/2-foot boat and determined the fishing strategy. We were both catching fish, yet more big walleye were pulled in over his starboard side.

The surface was flat, the sky overcast. We were seven miles northeast of Walnut Creek trolling over Lake Erie's First Trench in 65 to 75 feet of water. The same conditions, the same stretch from which Milavec had called the Post-Gazette three days earlier to file a Fishing Report noting that he and a partner had just boated 71 walleye between about 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. He graciously invited me to join in the fun, and in 72 hours I was on his boat.

There's no doubt that 2017 has been a spectacular year for Lake Erie walleye fishing. Milavec's 71-fish day was impressive but not unique. From May through September, anglers who found the right depths caught walleye using just about any bait almost everywhere from North East west to the Ohio line. Despite a few reports of walleye monsters -- a 31-incher caught in late June, a 30-inch 10-pound 'eye boated Sept. 26 -- most of the fish were sublegal. Sizes grew progressively better, averaging in the 15-inch range as the fish grew as much as 2 inches during the summer.

Milavec and other veterans of Lake Erie's walleye waters are anticipating even better fishing when the 2015 year-class graduates to legal size for the 2018 and 2019 fishing seasons.

Though targeted by many who favor walleye as the best-tasting freshwater game fish, Sander vitreus remains a mysterious dull-eyed relic of the last Ice Age, some 14,000 years ago. While Milavec and I debated the trigonometry of boat speed, line length and starboard- versus port-side catch rates and size averages, another walleye quandary was being studied by scientists throughout the Great Lakes region.

"(Pennsylvania's Lake Erie waters) are in a special place with access to cold deep water, warm shallow flats, good fishing on the west side, good fishing on the east side," said Mark Haffley, a biologist with the state Fish and Boat Commission. "It has always been assumed that the walleye fishery in Lake Erie has been driven by western migration, that they spawn in the western basin -- Sister Islands, Maumee River, Bass Islands -- and follow favorable water temperatures eastward. A question that hasn't been answered: Do discrete spawning stocks in eastern waters contribute differentially to Lake Erie's total walleye population?"

The answer could alter Lake Erie walleye population estimates, impacting sport fishing management practices in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, as well as Canadian commercial gill-netting regulations. Haffley said the best way to discover the truth about eastern spawning requires the use of technology that did not exist 10 years ago. Biologists want to trap walleye in eastern and western waters, tag them with telemetry units and track their movements.

Similar studies are already being done by Ohio and New York fisheries authorities, but they're costly. Haffley said about 30 injectable electronic tags would be needed at a total cost of $10,000.

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