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The Maumee River Walleye Run: World-Class Opportunity, Local Fun

By: Contributing Editor, Eric Kraus
Published: 03/25/2010 7:00 am

For those most passionate, there are some tell-tale signs. The first earthworms willing to venture across the pavement. Robins breaking the silence before sunrise. Or a cluster of brave, bright crocus blooms amid an otherwise winter-beaten landscape.

Spring in northwest Ohio might mean a roller coaster of temperatures and the inevitable late-season snow for most. But for the fleet of brave (or perhaps crazy) soles who call the Maumee River their second home from late February well into May, it's a right of passage – a portal to open water after a long winter, and the entrιe for some of the best fishing opportunity of the season.

Whether by small-trailered boat or muddied chest wader, thousands of fishermen from all over the region (and the country) make their annual pilgrimage to the Maumee River as the mercury begins to rise and the walleyes begin to migrate upstream from Lake Erie. Anglers young and old descend to the banks from Maumee and Perrysburg to as far upstream as Grand Rapids for what the Ohio Division of Wildlife calls one of the largest river migrations of freshwater sport fish east of the Mississippi River.

The Biology

The annual "walleye run" as it is affectionately known, is an event – not just for the fishermen but for the fish. A large female walleye can lay up to 500,000 eggs during its annual spring journey. The eggs are slightly adhesive and typically find their way into voids between rocks or vegetation. Incubation is temperature-dependent but generally lasts from two to four weeks. After hatching, the free-swimming embryo spends five to seven days feeding on its own yolk. Once the yolk is absorbed, the young walleye immediately begins its lifetime of predation, feeding ravenously on zooplankton, tiny invertebrates, and eventually (by day 40 – 60) on other fish. Juvenile and adult walleyes alike are significant predators in Lake Erie and fill an important role in the overall food web, feeding extensively on yellow perch, emerald shiners, and other fish and insects (including mayflies).

A variety of factors trigger the spawning run of this highly sought after sport fish, but the primary cues are an increase in water temperature, river flow, and photoperiod (hours of daylight). Walleye spawn when water temperatures range from 42 - 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and pulse up the rock-strewn Maumee – as well as the Sandusky River, now to a much lesser extent – as the temperature of the flowing water surpasses the temperature in their respective bays of Lake Erie.

Research is ongoing to better understand what percentage of the overall Lake Erie walleye population spawns in the Maumee and Sandusky. A reduction in adequate spawning habitat (largely due to siltation from run-off) has dramatically reduced springtime runs in the Sandusky drainage over the last decade. While runs in the Maumee have maintained higher numbers, the larger river system is prone to similar risks to the vital spawning habitat. Significant spawning is also known to take place on rocky shoals of the Western Basin and beyond (including in Lake St. Clair), but unpredictable wind and weather in these open water areas can lead to inconsistent survival and variations in the strength of populations from one year to the next.

The Outlook

Despite the odds, the outlook for the 2010 Maumee River walleye run remains excellent. Exceptional fishing and extremely high catch rates prevailed in 2009. Often in tight formation, "shoulder to shoulder" along the banks, anglers creeled more than 57,000 walleye under favorable conditions – more than double the long term average of nearly 25,000. And despite a series of mediocre (or even poor) hatches in recent years, the predictions for this season are for more world-class fishing opportunity.

As has become the norm, 90%+ of the catch from the Maumee River were male walleyes in 2009, averaging nearly 19-inches in length – an impressive average anywhere in the country. Walleye from a historic "mega-class" born in 2003 will continue to dominate catches in 2010 as hatches since (especially 2004 - 2006) have underwhelmed. According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, these fish will range from 19 to 28-inches.

The biggest of the big (28"+) will come predominantly from the 1996 to 2001 year classes. However, some 30-inch-plus (10-lb+) walleye may date back to hatches from the early 1990s or even the late 1980s. Walleye harvested in the past several seasons have been aged at up to an amazing 26 years – REMEMBER: it can take real time to grow a "trophy" . . . so bare that in mind when you are thinking about putting a large fish in the cooler!

The Secrets

With hundreds of thousands of walleyes concentrated into a few short river miles over a few short months, it is easy to be lulled into thinking catching is easy. While catching can certainly be fast and furious, success is most readily achieved when favorable conditions, the right equipment, the right location, and some attention to detail all come together on the water.

While a detailed "brain dump" of do's and don'ts – along with area hot spots – can be found online (both for the novice as well as the experienced angler . . . see www.thenaturalresource.com/walleyerun ), here are a few must-have tidbits that will make your time on the Maumee much more enjoyable:

REGULATIONS: All anglers (with very few exceptions) need to purchase an Ohio fishing license to fish the Maumee – or any public water, for that matter. In the grand scheme it's inexpensive (<$20 for a resident), and it's a small price to pay for a full year of fishing access. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the other rules of the game too, so you don't end up spoiling what should be a relaxing experience (see http://ohiodnr.com/wildlife/dow/regulations/fishing.aspx).

ROD/REEL/TACKLE: Most opt for a medium-weight spinning rod/reel combo with 8- or 10-lb test line. Ninety-nine percent of the lures used on the river are either weighted floating jigheads or leadhead jigheads, tipped with a bright, 3" twister tail.

SAFETY: The Maumee is a big river and must be respected. Learn when it's safe to be where, and keep in mind that the bottom is uneven and the conditions can change in a heartbeat.

LOCATION: Those who know fishing best pay homage to the old real estate adage: location, location, location. If you do not know the Maumee/Perrysburg area well, get to know places like Side Cut Metropark (Bluegrass Island), Jerome Road, White Street, Elizabeth Street, Ford Street, "The Tow Path," Buttonwood, Maple Street, Orleans Park, and Fort Meigs. An interactive map is also available at www.thenaturalresource.com/walleyerun to point you in the right direction.

In the end, it really comes down to timing. Not only synchronizing your seasonal clock (to go back to nature's cues, prime-time is when the forsythia bloom bright yellow), but also just finding the time to put down the cell phone, push away from the computer monitor, slip on the waders . . . and fish!

Additional helpful information may be found at www.woodcountytourism.com/

Eric Kraus is founder and editor of The Natural Resource (.com), an online map-based directory of all things outdoors in Ohio.

Fishermen image provided by Steve Klein, Walk-aboutPhoto.com

Fish images provided by the Ohio Division of Wildlife




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