Walleye Move to Find Forage in Eastern Basin Lake Erie


Captain Dan Ruppert (center)

Captain Dan Ruppert (center) with teammates Art Wind Jr. (left) and Scott Wind (right) had to settle for 8-pound and 9-pound fish to win the Northern Chautauqua County Conservation 3-day August walleye fishing contest in Dunkirk, NY.

When top anglers fished eastern basin Lake Erie for walleye in the late 1980’s, many fish were caught. It was not unusual to catch one or two 12-pound fish during two extended days of weekend fishing. In 1986, just fishing for fun with my senior Lake Erie mentor, Russ Johnson, we caught six 11-pounders, four 12-pounders and one 14-pounder, not mention several hundred fish from eight to 10 pounds while fishing the waters within five miles of Van Buren Point, not far from Dunkirk Harbor (New York). While limits of walleye are still the norm today (2015) for many anglers, not that many fish over 10-pounds are brought to net. This is confirmed by the final standings of multiple summer tournament walleye competition events. Some big fish are caught, but not many. So what has happened?

Perhaps, there are too many non-native invasive species like the round goby? The eastern basin walleye have definitely been lighter in weight this year, but they were longer than ever before too. The deep water where these summer fish live is cleaner and clearer than ever before, with 25 to 40 foot Secchi disc readings, and there is no obvious algae issue in the deep eastern basin of Lake Erie. Add that this past summer, huge schools of walleye had moved from their usual thermocline zone at 60 to 70 feet from the surface, down into the schools of smelt to find forage and feed. The fish were in 117 feet of water, the temperature was 49 degrees down there!

Has it been the early season 10-day fishing contests that have removed a large number of heavy, resident (eastern basin homebody), female, walleye spawners from eastern basin waters before the migratory walleye arrive? Final standings in such early season contests has literally dozens of fish tipping the scales over 10 pounds, but not in the late summer contests.

The migratory walleye schools swim all the way from western basin Lake Erie (Ohio) each June to escape the warm summer water and reduced oxygen levels suspected there (from algae blooms).
Is there a lack of forage? Emerald shiners are among the primary forage for walleye and yellow perch base, the once huge schools of these baitfish are missing this year.

Perhaps it is time to form an international Eastern Basin Lake Erie Tournament Regulations Board of Governors that would require the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to approve walleye tournament action for length, number of participants and time of year. Food for thought.