Article Posted: April 24, 2002

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Anglers advised to adjust fishing strategies to current lake water levels

COLUMBUS, OH - Sport fishing is expected to be very good in Lake Erie this year, despite lower-than-average water levels over the last three years, according to biologists with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife. However, anglers may need to adjust their traditional fishing strategies in order to maximize chances of success.
“The lake's native fish species have had more than 5,000 years to adapt to its fluctuating water levels,” noted Roger Knight, fisheries manager for the ODNR Division of Wildlife. “They should fare well despite the lake's ups and downs.”
Overall, short-term weather changes and the presence of invasive species have a greater effect on the lake's most popular sport fish than lower-than-average water levels, Knight said. However, water levels can affect where and how fish are found and how they behave.
Lake level influences may be most important in shallow areas, like river mouths, bays, nearshore areas, and underwater reefs. In Lake Erie's shallow western basin, reef complexes off Port Clinton; in the rocky outcroppings off Kelleys Island; and on the Gull Island shoal have long been favorite fishing spots for anglers. Lake level changes in this area can be as substantial as seven feet from one day to the next, often exposing parts of these shallow water habitats and influencing how fish use them.
In the early 1980s, boats could fish in the relatively murky water over these reefs all day with great success. As water clarity increased in the 1990s, daytime walleye fishing became inconsistent over the nearshore "rock piles," as fish sought deeper waters where light is low. During the last two years, reef fishing for walleyes has improved and may be related to the abundance of invasive round gobies in these areas.
“Gobies are becoming a favorite meal of walleye,” Knight said. “And the fish are found where their food is found.”
The round goby, native to the Caspian and Black Sea area of Eastern Europe, first appeared in the western basin of Lake Erie in 1996. It has flourished since then, becoming a food source for walleye, as well as most other sport fish. Gobies are attracted to the rocky reefs and walleye anglers should fish these areas, especially in the early morning and late evening or on overcast days, when the light-shy walleye are likely to be looking around for a meal, Knight said.
Next to walleye, yellow perch and smallmouth bass are the preferred catch of Lake Erie anglers. Perch anglers account for about 20 percent of the lake's fishing business; bass anglers make up about 8 percent.
The lake's yellow perch are "generalists." They thrive in all types of habitats and eat virtually anything available, Knight said.
Yellow perch fishing in the shallow western basin appears to be largely unaffected by the lake's varying water levels. However, in the deeper central basin, movement in the "thermocline" during very warm weather affects perch and other bottom-loving fish species. The thermocline is the stratum, about 45 to 50 feet down, that separates warmer surface water from colder deep water.
As lake levels drop, the thermocline moves downward, forcing the perch to move near shore, where the water is richer in oxygen. If the weather has been hot and calm for several days, the location of the thermocline can be very important to perch fishing success.
“If the perch fishing gets tough in waters over 50 feet deep during these periods, try closer to shore,” said Knight.
Unlike perch, smallmouth bass are habitat specific, Knight noted. They like structures such as rock piles and old shipwrecks. The fish use these structures in relatively shallow water habitats (under 15 feet) during May and June, but generally move to deeper water in summer, fall and winter.
In times of lower than average water levels, anglers in pursuit of "smallies" are advised to study nautical charts for the location and depth of these structures. But fishermen should keep in mind that reefs, which were at a good smallmouth depth just two or three years ago may now be above the water's surface. And structures that were once too far below the surface may now be attracting large numbers of smallmouths.
“The fish may now be orienting to a different structure than in the past,” Knight said. “And, like walleyes, smallmouth are eating round gobies that are abundant around these structures.”
Knight concluded that fishing success will continue to be largely influenced by daily weather events and the ability of the angler to anticipate how the fish will respond to them.

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