Lake Erie Walleye and Perch Status 2021

As the 2020 season showed, biologists from Ohio and Ontario were correct to say that 2020 and the next several years was the best walleye fishing in Lake Erie in decades. Sorry Lake of the Woods—Lake Erie is indisputably the true “Walleye Capital of the World.”

For Ohio residents and non-residents who purchased their licenses early, the walleye fishing on Lake Erie and the Maumee River in the spring was nothing short of phenomenal. The weather was especially cooperative, with the calmest month of April in memory.

Outstanding catches were made by trollers and jiggers fishing familiar spawning locations all spring, but due to the number of walleyes inundating the lake, catches were regularly made outside their normal spawning structures.

Unfortunately, due to the Governor’s pro-active approach to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife (DOW) suspended sales of non-resident fishing licenses during April’s stretch of fantastic jig fishing until early May.

After social distancing protocols were defined for charter boats, non-resident sales resumed in May. With unexpected spare time on the hands of many Ohioans, resident fishing license sales were up 11 percent according to DOW Chief Kendra Wecker during a wildlife diversity meeting in August.

According to Travis Hartman, Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Program Administrator, Lake Erie’s walleye population for 2020 began at 116 million catchable fish. A staggering 151 million fish are expected to enter the fishery in 2021 as legal 15-inch quarry from the 2019 year-class.

While the outstanding walleye hatches in 2015, 2018 and 2019 will sustain the fishery for years to come, other modest to good hatches in 2014, 2017 and 2016 add to the stockpile of older fish which provide numerous trophy opportunities.

An abundant but dwindling 2003 year-class may yet produce a record fish to replace the current Ohio record of 16.19 pounds which has been in place since 1999. State of the art aging techniques using the otoliths (ear bones) instead of scale rings have revealed that Lake Erie walleyes sometimes reach 25 years of age.

Walleye and yellow perch total allowable catches (TAC) set

On March 26, the Great Lakes Fish Commission’s Lake Erie binational committee, comprised of fisheries managers from all of the jurisdictions that surround the lake, released the 2020 (TAC) limits for walleye and yellow perch. These are based upon current populations, fishing industry feedback and the overall goal to annually maintain sustainable harvests.

The Lake Erie TAC for walleyes rose from 8.531 million in 2019 to 10.237 fish for 2020 and the perch TAC decreased from 8.552 to 7.805 million pounds from 2019 to 2020 due to rising and fall populations, respectively, of these two most important species. Walleyes are managed by numbers and perch by weight.

 

Walleye

The walleye TAC is 20 percent higher than last year, with Ohio receiving 5.232 million, Ontario allowed 4.408 million and Michigan’s quota is 597,000 fish respectively. Pennsylvania and New York set their harvest limits to fall in line with TAC objectives.

Last year’s catch rates were 0.83 walleyes per hour, nearly double the harvest rates of the infamous 1980s walleye boom and represents the best fishing in the 40-year history of Lake Erie’s creel surveys, boasts Hartman.

The increased catch rates, along with the daily limit increase to 6 walleyes year ‘round this spring could result in Ohio closing in on its 5.2 million fish allotted quota. A rule change that now allows 3 rods per angler may boost catch rates and add to additional harvest.

The 2018 walleye fishing effort was estimated by creel surveys to be 2.4 million hours, with the harvest ending up at 1.972 million fish in Ohio. The 2019 Ohio harvest was the highest in 26 years, since 1993, with 2.560 million walleyes kept in 3.1 angler hours of fishing, according to Hartman.

To ensure that the good fishing continues in the event that the lake sustains any years with poor recruitment, the daily bag limit of 6 will not be raised in these times of plenty.

But, because of the higher populations allowing Ohio’s TAC to eclipse the 3 million fish mark, the spring bag limit of 4 was raised until further notice to 6 year-round beginning in April 2020.

Anglers who want to experience the lake’s fast fishing with trophy potential should be sure to visit Lake Erie for walleyes in the coming years while the population enjoys to astounding modern year highs. Their condition continues to remain excellent, with plenty of forage fish species still available.

 

Yellow perch

The TAC for yellow perch dropped from 8.552 million pounds in 2019 to 7.805 million pounds for 2020. It allowed Ontario to harvest 3.737 million pounds, with Ohio allocated 3.139, Michigan earmarked for 0.192, Pennsylvania assigned 0.534 and New York apportioned 0.203 million pounds respectively.

Ohio’s TAC for each of its 3 perch management units are all set at approximately 1 million pounds. These are high enough to still allocate 35 percent of the perch quota to commercial trap netters, while the daily limit will remain at 30 lake-wide for Ohio sport anglers, according to Hartman.

Despite favorable hatches in the Western Basin during most years since 2013, catch rates have slowed since 2017 as perch are shifting their diet to more invertebrate and zooplankton prey items.

Stomach content analyses have determined that they are seasonally targeting midge and mayfly larvae, and lately more spiny water fleas, a large European zooplankton during the summer.

Spiny water fleas were introduced into the Great Lakes in the early 1980s and have exploded in numbers in recent summers, causing perch to suspend in the water column as they seek clouds of this zooplankton prey.

Fortunately, the water temperatures climbed too high in July and August to sustain spiny water flea populations, which crash once water temperatures exceed 78 F. Anglers were able to cash in on limit catches of “Erie Gold” for several weeks, with occasionally good catches made later when still-hungry schools could be located.

Central Basin perch spawning continues to disappoint, and numbers are much lower than those seen during the most recent higher catches occurring from 2013-2016. A modest hatch in 2018 will help in 2021 explained Hartman.

Days of counting on limits of perch exceeding a ½-pound-per-fish average are a fading memory for those of us who fished from Conneaut to Ashtabula 5 to 10 years ago. The yellow perch bag limit remains at 30 fish for Ohio waters.

 

Other considerations

The now annual harmful algal blooms affecting Lake Erie’s Western Basin during the summer gets a lot of press, but lower precipitation levels seen in the spring that reduced the nutrient concentrations in the Maumee River watershed spurred NOAA’s to predict smaller outbreaks of the toxic scum during 2020.

Lake levels are at near-record highs, and especially during an east wind can cause localized flooding within the low-lying Western Basin marinas.

 

 

Become a MidWest Outdoors Insider here!