Trying to find out whether they're catching fish and where and on what is like trying to pry state secrets from one of those diehard G-men from the old movies.
But it might be hard to keep quiet about the fisheries at a couple of regional lakes — one in particular.
Pymatuning Lake in Crawford County and Yough Dam on the Fayette-Somerset county border are looking good for walleyes.
Pymatuning especially seems like it's primed for a big year.
Biologists from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's area 1 office in Linesville surveyed it earlier this spring. They quickly realized that the timing of their work coincided with the walleye spawn, which meant they expected to see fish, said Tim Wilson, a fisheries biologist in the area 1 office.
But things got almost ridiculous.
“I think we ended up with about 4,000 in our nets,” Wilson said. “There are just a ton of legal fish out there for people to catch.”
The catch was 4,585 walleyes, to be exact.
Better news yet was the size of the fish, Wilson said. They ranged from 9 to 28 inches. But 92 percent were bigger than the legal minimum of 15 inches, and about one-quarter were 17 inches. Eighteen-, 16-, 19-, 15-, 14-, 20-, and 21-inch fish were next most common sizes, in that order.
“Very large year classes that started as fingerlings stocked in 2009, 2010 and 2011 have reached legal length and now comprise the vast majority of the walleye population in Pymatuning Reservoir,” Wilson wrote in a report of the survey.
He attributed that to a change in how walleyes are stocked.
For years, the commission and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — it shares management of the lake because it straddles the border — stocked walleyes as fry, meaning fish only about 1 inch long. That worked seemingly forever, Wilson said.
Then, for reasons no one has been able to identify, those fish quit surviving.
“Something changed. We don't know what it is or why, but what worked before didn't anymore,” Wilson said.
The agencies switched to stocking fingerling walleyes — fish up to about 3 inches long — at a rate of 40 per acre. That sparked the boom of the last few years, he said.
Things aren't that good at Yough Dam, but there are walleyes to be caught.
Where they're coming from is a question still to be answered.
At one time, commission biologists wanted to stop stocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake, believing that it could sustain a walleye fishery on its own. Some anglers disagreed and, with help from lawmakers, kept the stockings going.
Ever since, the stocked walleyes have been marked to differentiate them from wild fish.
This year, biologists from the commission's area 8 Somerset office surveyed the lake in an attempt to determine whether the walleyes to be found are coming from wild stocks or a hatchery.
No answers are available yet, commission biologist Mike Depew said. A complete evaluation of the survey has yet to be done and likely won't be for several months.
But preliminary findings indicate the lake is home to “pretty good numbers of walleyes,” he said.
“There were a lot of fish between 15 and 20 inches,” Depew said. “I'd say you could go out there and catch a 17-incher and think you were catching the same fish over and over and over because there were so many of them.”
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