Lake Erie's Walleye Fishing Is Booming

For walleye watchers on Lake Erie, it seemed like the 1980s were as good as things would get: Hatches were great, the population was high and the fishing was plentiful.

But the last decade has been even better.

“If you’re interested in walleye fishing, now is the time,” says Travis Hartman, Lake Erie fisheries program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “Everything we measure — catch rates, angler success — is the best it’s ever been.”

Hartman says what the last decade has in common with the 1980s is similar high water levels. “Superficially, there must be a connection,” he says, noting that higher water levels can lead to more nursery habitats and buffering on the reefs.

There also seems to be a lot more plankton for larval fish to feed on. “Every year we have enough eggs laid for a big hatch,” he says. “The reality is that it comes down to the timing of environmental conditions to allow the larvae to survive.”

The adult walleye population in Lake Erie is estimated at around 94 million this year, Hartman says. Of those, 49 million are from 2021, just entering into what’s considered adulthood for walleye.

The largest walleye birthing area is in the western basin of Lake Erie, which is defined as between Toledo, Ohio, and Huron, Ohio. Walleye don’t start migrating until they’re 3 or 4 years old, Hartman says, so there will be plenty of good fishing in the western basin all year.

When walleye do migrate, they do so from west to east, to the deeper — and cooler — parts of Lake Erie. How quickly they migrate to the central basin, which encompasses the remainder of Lake Erie in Ohio, and to the eastern basin, comprising the lake in Pennsylvania and New York, depends on how hot the summer is.

“There are years where they only make it to the east end of Ohio, but there are years they get all the way to New York,” Hartman says.

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