Prized ‘Eyes – Lake Erie Walleye Count tops 100 MILLION!

  • Walleye Season open in New York State 
  • Lake Erie Walleye Population Exceeds 100 MILLION!

You don’t have to look far to find exciting walleye fishing opportunities in New York

Walleye are challenging to catch and delicious to eat, making them one of the most prized sportfish in New York. As the largest member of the perch family, adult walleye typically weigh 1-3 lbs., but they can get much larger. The state record is a remarkable 18 lb. 2 oz. giant caught from the St. Lawrence River in 2018. Walleye are found across the state and provide phenomenal fishing opportunities in select waters.

Walleye in New York

Historically, walleye only inhabited waters in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, and Allegheny River watersheds in New York. Today, primarily due to stocking and other DEC management efforts, walleye occur in more than 140 waters from all of the major watersheds of the state. They thrive in large shallow lakes with gravel shoals and accessible tributaries, and in large, productive river systems. Walleye are a “coolwater” species, preferring cooler water than bass and sunfish, but warmer water than trout.

Walleye are named for their unique eyes that have a highly reflective layer of tissue. This gives them excellent vision at night and in turbid water, which enables them to feed (primarily on fish) in low light conditions, particularly at dawn and dusk. Walleye may suspend over deep water or move inshore or to other shallow-water habitats depending on the availability of preferred prey species at certain times of the year. Walleye spawn in early spring when water temperatures reach 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Adult fish tend to congregate in large numbers and spawn over cobble, gravel, or sand in rivers or windswept shallows in lakes. Spawning success can vary greatly year to year, which often results in one to a few year classes making up the majority of the population. Walleye that are 25 inches or larger are generally considered “trophies” in New York.

Management

In New York, stocking and regulations are the primary tools for managing the state’s walleye populations. DEC annually stocks walleye in about 40 waters across the state to establish, maintain, or restore fisheries. To support the stocking program, DEC collects approximately 300 million walleye eggs each spring at the Oneida Fish Hatchery on Oneida Lake, where they are then incubated and hatched. About 212 million of the newly hatched fry (only a few millimeters long) are stocked into a number of waters across the state. Additional fry are raised at the Oneida, Chautauqua, and South Otselic fish hatcheries for two months and stocked as fingerlings (2 inches long). There are typically 600,000 fingerlings stocked every year. Walleye typically take 3-4 years to reach 15 inches in length.

Since most anglers keep the legal-sized walleye they catch, fishing regulations are important for managing the state’s walleye populations. New York’s walleye season opens the first Saturday in May. The general statewide regulation for walleye is a 15-inch minimum length and a daily limit of 5 fish, with a closed season from March 16 through the Friday before the first Saturday in May to protect spawning fish. However, many waters have special regulations where length and daily limits vary. Additionally, some short stream reaches are closed to all fishing to protect significant spawning concentrations of walleye.

In a Class of Their Own

Quality walleye fishing opportunities can be found throughout New York, with three top destinations-Oneida Lake, Lake Erie, and Chautauqua Lake-projected to be exceptionally good in 2020 and beyond. Why?-Multiple strong year classes.

Year Class
A year class is made up of all the walleyes that were produced and survived in a single year. Walleye can live a long time (10 years or more) and a big year class can support good fishing for years. Multiple strong year classes in a population generally result in excellent fishing that is sustained over the long term.

Lake Erie

Lake Erie is considered the top walleye destination in western New York and is supported solely through natural reproduction. Walleye angler catch rates in the New York portion of the lake have been relatively high for the last decade and were at record levels in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The quality of the fishery is primarily due to the prolonged period of walleye spawning success in the lake, with large year-classes produced in 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The abundant walleye population affords additional harvest opportunity as Lake Erie is the only water in New York with a 6-fish limit. Overall good recruitment through recent years suggests adult walleye abundance and fishing quality will remain high for the next several years. There are even walleye from the exceptional 2003 year-class still hanging around, giving anglers a chance to catch trophy-sized walleye, with some exceeding 30 inches.

Oneida Lake

man holding up walleye from Lake Erie
Mike DiSarno with an impressive 25-inch walleye he caught from the Lower Niagara River. NYSDEC Photo

Oneida Lake is New York’s most popular walleye fishery, and according to Cornell University researchers who have studied the lake for over 60 years, the walleye population is on the rise. Currently estimated at approximately 1,000,000 fish, the adult walleye population is the largest it has been since the late 1980s due to strong year classes in 2010 and 2014. All indications are that there is another strong year class from 2016 that will push the walleye population up even higher. The abundant population has supported great walleye fishing over the last several years with angler catch rates indicative of a high-quality fishery. Fishing may even get better, as the 2019 targeted open water season catch rate was the highest seen in almost a decade and exceeded levels characteristic of an excellent fishery.

To help manage the fishery, more than 150 million walleye fry are annually stocked in the lake, and there is a reduced daily possession limit of 3 walleye per day.

Chautauqua Lake

Chautauqua Lake is a large, productive lake in western New York that provides a diverse mix of warm- and cool-water fishing opportunities, including for black bass, crappie, yellow perch, sunfish, and muskellunge. Despite the many options, anglers prefer walleye there, and for good reason. After a sharp decline during the early to mid-2000s, the walleye population has been steadily increasing since 2012 due to the implementation of a special fishing regulation (3 fish per day, 18-inch minimum length) and a walleye stocking program (2004-2015). Both the stocking program and special regulation were discontinued after two exceptional year classes were documented in 2014 and 2015. Recent survey results indicate that good recruitment of these year classes has created a highly abundant adult walleye population with an average size of 18 inches. There is also a good number of trophy-sized walleye in Chautauqua Lake, and angler reports of 30-inch plus walleye in the 8 to 10-pound range are not uncommon. The strong numbers of walleye in the lake combined with an overly abundant forage base suggest that the opportunity to catch a trophy walleye should only increase over the next decade. If this isn’t exciting enough, another very strong year class (2018), the second-highest on record, was found during a recent 2019 fall survey, suggesting that Chautauqua Lake should provide a high-quality walleye fishery for the next 7 to 10 years.

More information on New York’s many walleye fishing destinations here.

Find tips on fishing for walleye here.