Record walleye hatches make Lake Erie fishing best ever, boosting local tourism and economy

Walleye fishing on Lake Erie is the best it has ever been thanks to excellent fish hatches, including the biggest on record, during the past few years, the Ohio Division of Wildlife chief says. 

Last year, there were 89 million adult walleye in Lake Erie, making the chances of catching one or more very good, Kendra Wecker, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Chief, told a group of charter captains, media members and other stakeholders during the Governor’s Fish Ohio Day on June 25, at the Shores and Islands Ohio Welcome Center in Port Clinton. 

“Fishing on Lake Erie has never been better,” Wecker says. “Our world-class fishery will extend for years to come.”

Kristina SmithYoung fish pulled from an Ohio Department of Natural Resources trawl on Sandusky Bay during Fish Ohio Day. The Sandusky Fisheries Research Station examines these types of fish to examine recent hatches of various species. Although walleye are the most-targeted prize, the lake is also home to excellent yellow perch, smallmouth bass and catfish fisheries, she says. 

Fisheries biologists spend hundreds of thousands of hours a year researching hatches, fish mortality, diet, and populations to manage these and other fish species. That research is then used by the Lake Erie Committee, an organization of stakeholders in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Canada, to set limits on how many of the different types of fish can be taken from the lake without damaging the overall populations. 

Protecting those populations is key to a major tourism industry that brought nearly $20 billion to the eight Ohio counties on Lake Erie in 2023, says Larry Fletcher, president of Shores and Island Ohio. That’s a 16 percent increase in revenue over 2021, the previous time data was collected, he says.

Fishing is a major draw to local tourism, and it supported 131,000 jobs last year along the Ohio shoreline, he says, citing recently released data from Tourism Economics, a firm that specializes in tourism research.

During Fish Ohio Day, the Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky Fisheries Research Station welcomed participants who did not go fishing to its facility in downtown Sandusky to show them how it conducts research to effectively manage fish populations. 

Fisheries biologists took the group aboard “The Explorer,” a large boat they use to trawl for young, tiny fish, to monitor the hatchlings of the year. As they pulled the trawl net from Sandusky Bay, a plethora of silvery fish the size of minnows landed in the metal tray at the back of the boat. 

Kristina SmithParticipants in the education tour at the Sandusky Fisheries Research Station look at an otolith, or ear drum, of a fish under a microscope. Examining the otolith is how fisheries biologists determine the age of a fish.A couple larger fish, including two walleye, a catfish, and invasive white perch, stood out in the pile. Zak Slagle, Fisheries Biologist, pointed out emerald shiners and gizzard shad, both of which are used for bait and are important food sources for the larger game fish, as well as other small species. At this time of year, walleye and yellow perch hatched this spring are about an inch long. 

“They’re just getting big enough to be caught in the nets,” Slagle says, noting that the division of wildlife has been conducting these surveys since the 1970s. “It tells us how the walleye and yellow perch are doing before they enter the fishery. That’s why it’s so powerful.”

That information goes into the model that the Lake Erie Committee uses to determine how many of these fish can be harvested from Lake Erie in a year without harming the overall populations. Each state and Ontario set limits on how many walleye, yellow perch and other fish can be kept from their portion of Lake Erie, and this process takes place every year, says Eric Weimer, Fisheries Biologist Supervisor at the Sandusky Fisheries Research Station. 

“It really is something that requires a lot of collaborative effort,” Weimer says.

The research also helps the division of wildlife determine how successful the hatches, or year classes, of walleye and yellow perch were that year.

“We want to make sure we have sustainable fishing for years to come,” Slagle says. 
During these trawls, biologists also collect samples and information for other agencies, such as Ohio State University and the U.S. Geological Survey. These agencies often partner on studies. 

Kristina SmithFisheries Biologist Heather Luken holds a freshwater drum, also called a sheepshead, caught through an electrofishing demonstration on Sandusky Bay during Fish Ohio Day.The trawls take place at 23 sites in the spring and 37 sites fall throughout the lake’s Western Basin, which extends from Toledo to Huron. The Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station handles this work in the Central Basin. 

Trawling is just one component to the research. In the fall, biologists use gill nets to catch fish that they dissect to determine age, sex, diet, and other factors that help them determine how populations are doing and what potential challenges the fish face. 

“We obtain a whole lot of very key information for our modeling,” Slagle says. 

Using the fish’s otolith, or ear drum, biologists can determine the age of the fish, and this is the best and most accurate means of doing so. They also check its stomach contents. One of the most interesting things found was a 12-inch snake in the stomach of a largemouth bass. 

Any of the fish that are fresh enough to eat, especially the walleye and perch, are donated to Victory Kitchen in Sandusky, which offers hot meals to those in need, Slagle says. 

Another means the station uses to study fish is electrofishing. This is where the boat puts an electric current into the water and stuns the fish. Biologists then net them and put them in a holding tank. 

This is most effective in near-shore areas, and they often use this method to study largemouth bass, which prefer warmer, shallower water and area growing fishery on Lake Erie. 

The fish recover in about 2 to 3 minutes, and the crew examines them to determine what types of fish are in the study area, how old they are and if there are large numbers of invasive species or new invasive species, says Heather Luken, Fisheries Biologist.

Unless biologists plan to keep the fish for dissection, they are released back into the lake.