Catch walleye at Pymatuning while you still can
Anyone who's ever wanted to fish Pymatuning Lake for walleyes might want to get there soon.
There are two reasons. First, your chances of catching a legal fish there, are, for the most part, still pretty good. Second, there's no telling how much longer that might be true.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Ohio Department of Natural Resources annually stock millions of walleye fry -- 16 million quarter-inch fish this spring alone -- in the 17,088-acre lake that straddles the border near Espyville in an attempt to sustain the fishery.
That effort has succeeded in producing walleyes in the past. When Fish and Boat Commission biologists surveyed the lake earlier this year, for example, they netted 1,163 of them. They ranged in size from 15-27 1⁄2 inches, with 88 percent of them longer than 18 inches and 44 percent longer than 20.
The problem is that biologists didn't find even one sub-legal fish shorter than 15 inches. Not one.
"It's not totally surprising, but it is very much a concern to us," said Freeman Johns, the Fish and Boat Commission biologist with the task of managing Pymatuning's fishery. "Obviously you've go to have little walleyes if you want to grow bigger ones down the road."
What's happening to Pymatuning's little walleyes is an ongoing mystery.
Each fall, biologists from both Pennsylvania and Ohio sample Pymatuning to look for young-of-the-year walleye, fish that should be about 8-inches long by late September.
If biologists collect one yearling walleye per hour on the water -- something they used to do consistently on Pymatuning prior to 2001 -- that's considered excellent, said Phil Hillman, district 3 fisheries management supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. If they catch 0.5 fish per hour, that's acceptable. Anything less than that is substandard.
The problem is that only once in the last six years has the lake produced a decent year class of fish. That was in 2003, when biologists saw 0.51 walleyes per hour.
In 2006, biologists collected just 0.13 young-of-the-year walleye per hour. In 2005 they didn't find any.
What's happening to keep so many of the walleye fry from surviving isn't clear.
A researcher from Bowling Green University is studying the lake and its walleyes to see whether the problem is predation or a lack of food or something else. It could be a combination of those and other factors, Hillman said.
"Right now, there's no single cause we can put our finger on and say 'this is the problem,'" Hillman said. "And we're not sure if we do find a cause if it's going to be something we can control or if it's going to be something that we can't readily address. We just hope it's something we can adapt to."
In the meantime, the quality of Pymatuning's walleye fishery is open to debate. Hillman said it's not number one on his list of places to send fishermen; Johns believes the lake is still worth a visit, given the fact that the average walleye will be 18 to 20 inches.
What they do agree on is that both state agencies are serious about solving Pymatuning's walleye survival problem.
"We're committed to trying to get the walleye numbers back up again," Johns said. "It means a lot of recreation for our anglers and a lot of money for the local economy. It's important.
For what it's worth, this was, by all accounts, an excellent year for crappies on Pymatuning Lake.
The lake has a good population of black crappies in particular, with some white crappies mixed in. When Fish and Boat Commission biologists surveyed the lake this year, the found 371 black crappie ranging in size from 2-13 inches. Two thirds of the fish were longer than 9 inches.
Crews also found 41 white crappies ranging from 2 to just over 12 inches.
Anglers have had a lot of success catching nice crappies this year, too, Dave Richter of Richter's Bait Shop in Jamestown. Still, crappies don't draw anglers the way walleyes do.
The crowds of fishermen that used to converge on the lake each spring from all over western Pennsylvania are probably only half as big now as they were 10 years ago, he said.
"Walleyes seem to be what everybody wants," Richter said.