The Insane Cult of the Lake Erie Walleye


I’M SEVEN MILES offshore from Lorain, Ohio, being verbally abused. To get right here required an alarm set for nicely earlier than daybreak, an hour-long drive from my motel, and a backbreaking run throughout a Lake Erie that awakened on the flawed aspect of the mattress. It’s the sort of tough that’s not so shitty you might want to name it off, however shitty sufficient that your calves and ankles are going to really feel it later from serving to you retain your steadiness all day. I’m making an attempt to get into a superb place to crank in a fish, however I’m not getting there quick sufficient for a frantic Captain Ross Robertson.

“You need to move to the front of the boat right now!” he yells. “How am I supposed to reach the tip of the rod when the fish gets close if you’re standing there? We really need to get the communication going here, or this just ain’t gonna work!”

The Insane Cult of the Lake Erie Walleye

The final time I’d been chastised like this whereas fishing was throughout a white marlin match in New Jersey in 2006. There was $500,000 on the road, and we had simply hooked a pleasant fish after zero bites in six hours.

But this time there’s no marlin or cash at stake. I’m preventing a walleye. Or not less than, I feel I’m preventing a walleye. There’s 150 ft of monofilament, a banana weight, and an enormous planer board between me and the fish. It feels barely heavier, I suppose; the rod is bent a little bit deeper than it was whereas simply dragging the planer on the troll. If I do something however reel steadily whereas standing like a statue, I’ll be hollered at once more.

I get that walleye tastes good, however until the only real goal is meat on the desk, I’ve by no means understood why folks do that. Not when you might have smallmouths, muskies, pike, lake trout, and steelhead swimming in the identical waters. All I can suppose when the 15-incher lastly hits the web is, Why do folks put a lot effort right into a fish that fights like a moist paper towel?

But they do. Thousands of them. The fishing tradition round Lake Erie is so closely pushed by walleyes that the zealotry helped launch one of the superior migration research in fisheries science historical past. More is thought in regards to the actions of those fish in a single physique of water than about some other sport fish within the nation. It’s the fisheries model of Big Brother, however the fixed eye within the sky—or, on this case, ear to the water—is tuning in to assist the walleye addicts get their repair extra successfully for many years to come back.

The Insane Cult of the Lake Erie Walleye
The rentable walleye trailer in Port Clinton, Ohio. Walleye fishing is massive enterprise alongside Lake Erie. Joe Cermele

Raised in Walter World

Robertson and I’ve been buddies for years. Our relationship is rooted in fixed ballbusting, so even when he’s snappy and curmudgeonly, I take pleasure in it and fireplace proper again. On the way in which to the bar after that lengthy, rocky day on the lake, I cease to admire the 20-foot walleye mounted on a trailer parked smack in the midst of downtown Port Clinton—the Walleye Capital of Ohio. It’s able to be hitched up at a second’s discover for any parade, pageant, or carnival that requires a large dose of walleye pleasure.

“I’m pretty sure this was built to show people exactly how big a walleye would need to be to engage the drag,” I say with a smirk. Robertson hits me with just a few expletives and off we go.

Robertson, 43, is initially from Toledo and has been guiding on Erie since he was in faculty. He’s damned good at his job. Although I is probably not as smitten with the goal as he and the locals are, I’m in awe of the ability and craft that go into catching massive walleyes constantly. Watching Robertson work feeds my internal fishing geek’s want to know what makes this fishery tick. He’s exact, methodical, organized, and extremely dialed in. Despite these nasty situations, we stayed away from the fleet and barely went 10 minutes with no chunk. Our largest fish measured almost 30 inches, however the scuttlebutt on the ramp instructed most individuals had been struggling to catch a restrict of keepers (six fish, every a minimal of 15 inches). On Lake Erie, Robertson’s means—and the popularity that comes with it—is corresponding to that loved by the star quarterback in a Texas highschool soccer city.

“There are so many people who walleye fish along the lake that it’s like a conversation piece,” he tells me. “Even if you’re not really that into it, you can still talk about walleyes. And because there are so many walleyes in Lake Erie, I think even more people fish for them here because it’s easier to have those lights-out days. With all due respect, I’d say that a lot of people who fish Erie would have a hard time catching a limit in Minnesota or North Dakota because there just aren’t as many fish.”

The Insane Cult of the Lake Erie Walleye
Lake Erie’s walleye harvest is concentrated within the Western Basin, the place most charters are. Telemetry knowledge exhibits that extra walleyes stay there in the summertime, however they are typically smaller fish. Bigger walleyes swim east towards New York after the spawn. Glenn Orzepowski

Some 2.5 million kilos of walleye had been harvested from the lake in 2021, in accordance with the Ohio Division of Natural Resources and its Division of Wildlife. Ten years earlier, that quantity was simply 417,000 kilos. Step again to when Robertson was born, and the quantity was dismal. In the Nineteen Seventies, Erie was suffering from industrial air pollution. By the mid Nineteen Eighties, cleansing efforts had been starting to indicate optimistic results, and the walleye inhabitants roared again.

“When I was a kid, I don’t think the bass population had really come back yet. Or maybe we just didn’t know how to fish for them, but all you heard about was walleyes,” Robertson says. “So when you’re trying to understand what makes the locals so walleye obsessed, I think it’s just a product of growing up with incredible walleye fishing in your backyard. It’s no different from a kid growing up on Lake Okeechobee being obsessed with largemouth bass.”

The Insane Cult of the Lake Erie Walleye
Ohio Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist Matt Faust (proper) units a gill internet to pattern Lake Erie’s walleye inhabitants. Courtesy of Ohio Division of Wildlife

It was throughout the ’80s that lots of Robertson’s mentors started placing Erie again on the map. Captain Jim Fofrich Sr. is credited as the primary man to ever troll a planer board for walleyes. Gary Roach taught anglers the lethality of utilizing a jig and minnow within the early spring, a month earlier than the typical man had even began focusing on these fish. The efforts of those pioneers quickly caught the eye of the Lindners—the primary household of fishing media—and Erie was on its technique to changing into the largest walleye vacation spot within the nation.

Now that it has reached that standing and grow to be such a boon for the financial system, it’s the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s job to keep up Erie’s high rating. But the lake covers 9,940 sq. miles. Within these depths, walleyes observe migration patterns which might be, in some methods, extra advanced than these of well-known vacationers which have a complete ocean at their disposal, like Atlantic salmon and striped bass. So how do you successfully monitor the well being of a species that has 241 miles to roam east to west, and 60 miles north to south? You crank up the amount.

Sounding Board

Lake Erie boasts the biggest naturally reproducing inhabitants of walleyes within the U.S. Unlike in numerous our bodies of water throughout the nation that depend on hatchery fish to bolster numbers, no walleye stocking has ever occurred in Erie. Because of this, it’s much more important that state businesses and the Canadian authorities work collectively to maintain tabs on the largest moneymaker within the lake. Everyone does their half, however the cost is squarely being led by Ohio.

Matt Faust, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio DOW, has been entrenched within the state’s walleye acoustic telemetry research for the final eight and a half years. At this second, there’s a listening machine positioned each 7 to fifteen kilometers alongside the lake backside, plus some in Lake Huron for good measure. (Erie walleyes can transfer between the lakes through the Detroit River.) They obtain pings from walleyes implanted with micro acoustic tags 24 hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a 12 months. In different phrases, a tagged walleye can’t swim wherever in Lake Erie with out being tracked.

It prices roughly $500,000 a 12 months to maintain this research up and working, in accordance with Faust. That’s for a mix of shopping for costly gear, paying workers, and working and sustaining a fleet of military-like analysis boats docked at HQ in Sandusky, the largest of which measures 53 ft. It’s not an affordable operation, however after almost 12 years of information assortment, the hassle has produced one thing invaluable: the flexibility to know the place the majority of the walleyes are within the lake at any given time.

Getting up to now, nevertheless, was a protracted street with humble beginnings.

“We’ve been interested in knowing more about how the walleyes move around the lake since this fishery first started being heavily managed,” Faust tells me. “So in the late ’80s, that started with jaw tags. Multiple state agencies were involved, and hundreds to thousands of fish would be netted and tagged every spring. It was the best way at the time to look at not only where they’re moving, but also to estimate their survival and exploitation rates from birth to maturity.”

adding transmitter to walleye
An Ohio DOW worker slips an acoustic transmitter—the black tube in his proper hand—right into a walleye’s stomach throughout surgical procedure. Courtesy of Ohio Division of Wildlife

The jaw-tagging program carried on into the early 2000s, and whereas it produced helpful knowledge, it additionally had limitations and downsides. It took an unbelievable period of time and manpower to tag sufficient fish to cowl inhabitants subgroups inside the lake, a few of which migrate west to east and others of which journey north to Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay. The larger problem? The solely technique to know the place a tagged fish traveled was by way of recapture. This, in fact, places numerous religion in anglers. First, they need to land a tagged fish. Second, they need to care sufficient to name the DOW and report the tag quantity. Given that such an enormous variety of fish had been being tagged (about 1,000-plus per season), it could have been too costly for the DOW to supply money rewards for call-ins. Nowadays, for those who catch a walleye with an implanted tag, report it, and return the gear, the company will put $100 in your pockets. From 2017 to 2021, Faust labored with constitution boat captains to seize and tag almost 600 Erie walleyes in 20 complete days on the water. He estimates there are about 2,000 tagged walleyes swimming round on the market proper now. Implanted fish additionally get an exterior orange tag so anglers know there’s {hardware} stitched contained in the stomach. Thing is, irrespective of how good you might be, paydays are few and much between. In the dozen years for the reason that acoustic program began, Robertson has caught solely three tagged fish.

“I caught one around Halloween pretty close to Port Clinton, so I called the DOW and read the number,” Robertson says. “My buddy over there asked me to read it again. It was like he thought I was screwing with him. The fish had only been tagged in September, but it had been tagged in Thunder Bay on Lake Huron.”

In that brief time, that walleye had lined roughly 260 miles, navigating the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River, to wind up again within the Western Basin of Erie and in Robertson’s internet.

’Eyes on the Data

The odds of Robertson catching that fish are nearly as little as profitable the lottery. But that’s the fantastic thing about the acoustic telemetry research: The DOW can get higher monitoring knowledge sooner, whereas bodily tagging far fewer fish than it did throughout the jaw-tag marketing campaign.

Ohio’s acoustic telemetry research obtained off the bottom in 2010 as a direct results of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program began throughout the Obama administration that offered an enormous inflow of funding to all of the Great Lakes. Luckily for the DOW, each the Trump and Biden administrations upheld the initiative, permitting the telemetry research to develop and thrive. But the trick to creating it successful, in accordance with Faust, was determining which fish to tag.

“Just while I was on the lake so far this year, I tagged around 70 fish,” he says. “But last year I tagged almost 200. Since the program started, I would estimate roughly 2,000 fish have been implanted with acoustic tags, and we tag approximately 50 to 100 fish a year on average. While we’re tagging fewer fish, we’re doing everything we can to make sure those fish are representative of the larger lake populations. So when we started tagging, we were going out during April or early May. One day maybe you’re getting smaller, younger males, so we fish a different place next time to get the bigger females. It’s not like we’re just tagging every fish that we catch, trying to make sure a certain number of tags are deployed.”

walleye with fin tag
The implanted acoustic transmitters aren’t seen to anglers, so walleyes that obtain surgical procedure are additionally fitted with orange fin tags. Andrew Muir

Since this system goals for quite a lot of different-size fish from totally different areas of the lake, a ping from a tagged fish or two is sufficient to let the DOW extrapolate that they’re seemingly transferring with an even bigger physique of like-size walleyes. In the early days of this system, there have been solely a handful of receivers, positioned at strategic pinch factors the DOW thought a big share of walleyes would cross by way of over the 12 months. Now, with so many extra receivers underwater—together with proper in the midst of the lake—there’s little or no lag in knowledge.

“During the jaw-tagging days, we were used to, say, 100,000 lines of cumulative data in a year being a lot,” Faust says. “Now, considering the acoustic tags last about a year and a half inside a fish, you can potentially get a million detections from a single tag.”

The research, in essence, has given Lake Erie’s walleyes no place to cover. The query is, Now that the DOW can discover them and observe them, the place precisely are they going? And extra importantly, how is that this benefiting the legions of walleye-hungry anglers across the lake?

Twists and Turns

In 2014, there have been 682 licensed fishing guides on Lake Erie, per the Ohio DOW. In 2022, there are 900. The spike can, in no small manner, be attributed to the 2015 walleye spawn, which was one of the profitable within the historical past of the lake. According to Faust, whereas no one can say for sure what generates best spawning situations, good ice protection in winter coupled with elevated water ranges in spring appears to assist. It’s estimated that the 2015 class alone added tens of millions of recent walleyes to the system. The spawns the next years had been nearly nearly as good. The extra fish there are within the lake, the extra seemingly it’s you’ll catch one, and, subsequently, the extra folks determine they’re ok to make a buck placing paying sportsmen on them. The draw back to those epic spawns, nevertheless, is that now there are many small fish that want time to mature—and that anglers like Robertson have to sift by way of to seek out the giants.

acoustic fish tags
Black acoustic transmitters and orange exterior tags able to be deployed. The transmitters enable biologists to trace a walleye’s actions for a 12 months and a half. Andrew Muir

“Ninety percent of the charter boats are in the Western Basin of the lake, but the telemetry study has proven that most of the year, only about 10 percent of the fish are there,” Robertson says. “That study has confirmed what dialed-in walleye guys have known for years. After the spawn, the bigger fish are always moving east all the way to New York waters, chasing cooler temperatures and baitfish. But it’s also shown that a lot of the smaller fish from all those successful years aren’t making that run. So if you’re a charter captain in the Western Basin, come summertime, you’re going to be hanging your lures in front of mainly small fish.”

When Robertson was in his 20s, he’d suppose nothing of hauling his boat for hours to Erie, Pennsylvania, or farther to remain on trophy fish. These days, with assist from the telemetry research knowledge, he’s capable of get a greater understanding of the place to focus on massive fish nearer to dwelling, as a result of even when many of the fish are doing one factor, there’ll at all times be outliers that don’t observe the gang.

By the e-book, Erie walleyes spawn within the rivers of the Western Basin, grasp round offshore from the river mouths for a time, after which transfer to the Central Basin, to the Eastern Basin, or north to Lake Huron in summer time earlier than migrating again within the fall. What has been most stunning to Faust is the nonlinear nature of these actions.

“In late October, as an example, conventional angler wisdom says most of the fish are going to be off Cleveland and continually pushing west,” Faust explains. “But we now know that’s not the case. They could be in Cleveland one week and then the next week, for whatever reason—like perhaps they’re following forage fish—they’re back east off Erie, Pennsylvania, where Ohio anglers aren’t going to catch them. The data really points out these exceptions. Like 75 percent of the fish are doing what you expect them to do, but 25 percent are doing something completely different.”

Ohio DOW boat with crew
Employees aboard an Ohio Division of Wildlife analysis boat put together to gather walleye from the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Andrew Muir

Even although the telemetry research knowledge is public data, Faust admits one shortcoming is the lag in packaging it for fishermen. It’s troublesome to current findings in actual time, which forces the DOW to launch knowledge compiled after a 12 months of monitoring.

“I think the most important thing this study shows is what the walleyes are doing consistently year after year,” says Faust. “Though it’s probably fair to say fishermen aren’t using that data enough right now. But on the flip side, the managers are using it to refine their models and incorporate new information as quickly as possible so we don’t make a decision that’s going to negatively impact the sustainability of the fishery. We want to make sure anglers keep going out there and catching.”

Robertson agrees that proper now, not sufficient anglers are utilizing the telemetry research to their benefit. But even when your common Erie walleye angler is paying the migration knowledge no thoughts, they need to be grateful that the DOW cares a lot about supporting what they love. As Faust put it, “Everything we’re doing is to try to better improve or inform fisheries management on Lake Erie. It’s not like high science. There’s no ivory tower side of this.”

I nonetheless preserve that until you’ve obtained a jar of tartar sauce simply burning a gap within the fridge, there are extra thrilling fish to catch than walleyes. But that doesn’t imply I don’t have a deep appreciation for the work Faust and his group are doing. Frankly, I’m jealous, as a result of I’d give something to have this degree of monitoring knowledge on species like striped bass and smallmouths nearer to dwelling. More impressively, the longer the research continues, the extra conclusions will be drawn about why fish transfer, not simply the place they go.

“I think patterns are already emerging that start to let us answer questions we couldn’t before,” Robertson says. “As this study expands, we might be able to determine if our fish are moving from one location in a given year because there’s not enough food, or are they just scouting out a new area that they may never return to again? Once we can use this study to answer more of the why, it’s just going to be even more beneficial. The more you can get your head around the big picture on any body of water, the more fish you’re going to catch.”

This story initially ran within the Migrations Issue of Outdoor Life. Read extra OL+ tales.


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