Walleye run migration
Sandusky River Strategic Access Team prepares for fish to move upstream to Seneca County after Ballville Dam is removed
In the midst of this spring’s walleye run on the Sandusky River, local outdoor leaders are looking a few years down the road when the annual spawning migration is expected to reach Seneca County.
“The long and short of it is with the Ballville Dam coming out this year, opportunities are going to improve,” said Mike Wilkerson, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife fish management supervisor in northwest Ohio.
Wilkerson is taking a proactive approach to expected changes. Over the winter, he formed the Sandusky River Strategic Access Team, a group working to improve outdoor recreation on the river.
During their first two meetings, group members have been working together strategically to make upgrades and increase river access upstream from the dam.
“We want to collaborate with a bunch of different entities in the cities of Fremont and Tiffin, and the townships and park districts,” he said. “And another bunch of groups that are involved.”
Team members are working to pinpoint places where more accesses could be added to the riverbank.
“We want to pull together some sort of report that ties into the existing trails that are around,” he said. “I think both cities would like to have a trail between them along the river.”
He said the team is looking at such ideas as larger parking lots and adding fish-cleaning stations.
“There’s going to be more fishing going on in the future,” Wilkerson said.
Canoe and kayak access also is high on the agenda.
“We’re trying to put together a comprehensive list of the accesses cities and townships have,” Wilkerson said. “That’s part of bringing all these people together that have all this history with different areas.”
In Sandusky County’s Ballville Township, Wilkerson said there’s a new park being added at Tindall Bridge at CR 209, and the team is looking to make upgrades at Sandusky County Park District’s Wolf Creek Park, on SR 53 between Fremont and Tiffin, and south into Seneca County.
Wilkerson said nobody knows how far into Seneca County the walleye migration will reach, but he suspects the area along CR 33 near the Tiffin-Seneca Izaak Walton League grounds might be a good spot.
“That’s all speculation right now,” he said.
ODNR conducted a study on the Sandusky River from 2005 to 2010 to evaluate walleye spawning and how much impact dam removal might have.
According to a report on the ODNR website, the Lake Erie Fisheries Unit, Sandusky, implanted 61 walleye with radio telemetry transmitters prior to spawning, and released the fish upstream of Ballville Dam during the spawn to examine spawning behavior and timing, habitat selection and spawning locations in the river and the bay.
Also, researchers from the Ohio State University Aquatic Ecology Lab attached external transmitters to 200 walleye in 2008 for an intense, one-season evaluation of spawning habitat use.
The website says, “Information gathered during these projects has provided managers with vital information about the Sandusky walleye spawning stock, insight into the impact of the Ballville Dam on walleye spawning, and tools necessary to protect and enhance this important stock.” (Read the report at wildlife.ohiodnr.gov
Because of the promise of more outdoor recreation, Wilkerson said the team is collecting information now.
“We’re trying to put together a plan with these groups that makes sense,” he said. “We need to find ways to pay for all those things. There’s no money involved in all this yet.”
He hopes much of the planning will be completed within the next six months.
In the meantime, this year’s walleye migration is under way on the Sandusky and Maumee rivers. Walleye now migrate as far south of Ballville Dam, and Fremont is a hot spot on the Sandusky.
On the Maumee River, fishing enthusiasts are centering their efforts right now in downtown Perrysburg, according to Brian Miller, author of a book and website about the Maumee River Walleye Run — www.maumeeriverwalleye
Miller’s focus has been mainly on the Maumee River in past years, but he said he’s added the Sandusky in the last few years.
When he’s asked to recommend the best fishing spots, Miller said he looks at both.
“Sometimes I’ll tell you to go to the Sandusky and sometimes I’ll tell you go to the Maumee,” he said.
He said the fishing had been slow until about two weeks ago.
“Just recently, the water came up and the water temperature rose,” he said. “The Sandusky picked up before that. I’m noticing the Sandusky is usually three to five days ahead of the Maumee.”
This year’s walleye run will last two or three more weeks, Miller said, until at least the end of April and likely into early May.
Later in spring, he said fish tend to stay in the river longer.
“In the Maumee, fish push up far beyond the normal spawning ground and stay there for a longer time,” he said.
The timing of fish spawning is largely regulated by the number of daylight hours.
“Weather conditions cause the fish to turn off and not bite,” he said.
A major factor is water temperature.
“Right now, the fishing is good,” he said. “There are a lot of males in the river and we’re starting to get a lot of females.”
The annual cycle begins as soon as ice breaks up, and the first walleye venture in the rivers in late February or early March.
“They come in early, however there’s not very many of them,” Miller said. “It usually hits social media around March 1. People go out and get disappointed.”
Spawning starts when the water temperature reaches about 40 degrees and the hours of daylight get longer. Female walleye do not build nests, but they drop their eggs on the bottom of the river when conditions are best. Males remain near the females and fertilize the eggs, and they hatch in 10-21 days, depending on water temperature.
Instinct tells the fish where to go to find areas that have a gravel bottom and the right water flow.
It’s not until at least mid-March that experienced anglers can start catching fish in good numbers, Miller said, and less experienced anglers are better off waiting until April 1.
Like most people, he said he’s honed his skills over the years.
“I think a lot of people go through that learning cycle,” he said. “People who do it every year, they’re like a machine. They can catch fish.”
Although Miller said there’s no definite way of knowing the numbers of people who fish the rivers each spring, but his informal surveys show about 8,000 people spend some time in the Maumee and another 2,000 fish the Sandusky.
“Nobody really knows,” he said.
A survey he conducted two years ago showed 32 states were represented on the Maumee.
“It’s not just Ohio and Michigan,” he said. “Kentucky and Indiana are really big draws. One guy came in from Hawaii.”
In the future, Miller said the annual migration will begin to affect Seneca County after the dam removal, which is scheduled for September.
“There are fish stuck at the dam right now,” he said. “The only reason they stop is because of the dam. If you take the dam out, they’ll continue to move up.”
The later in spring a walleye moves upstream, the further upstream it will go, he said.
“It might take a year or two to have an impact,” he said. “Once they take the dam out, there’s just so much more structure available for fish to run upstream. There’s so many more spawning spots.”
According to his research, Miller said fish spawned further upstream on the Sandusky before the dam was placed in the river, and after it’s removed he expects fish will venture upstream again.
On the Maumee River, he said fish travel from Lake Erie all the way to Independence Dam, east of Defiance.
And not all walleye return to Lake Erie.
“There are local fish that stay in the river, so people can catch them year round,” he said. “That’ll be really good for outdoor sports.”