ERIE, Pa. -- We knitted a fish. It wasn't on purpose, just one of those happy accidents that all anglers can appreciate. Early Monday, motoring straight out of Walnut Creek toward the first trench, Ron Milavec of Upper St. Clair noticed big curves on his depth finder that shouldn't have registered at 54 feet -- the conventional wisdom of that day had the walleye running deeper. We had just switched over to the smaller 9.9 motor, rigged up with Milavec's homemade worm harnesses and started a trolling pattern when one of the downrigger cables snarled.
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The boat circled as we straightened it, while deep beneath rolling 6-inch "walleye chop," our trolling lines were getting braided. Over and under, under and over, we untangled the rod tips until the lines were clear. "Hey," he said, setting the hook hard. "I think there's something on here."
It was 28 inches of walleye, caught where it shouldn't have been on a tangled line under a boat that was out of position. It's unclear whether the fish was attracted to the circling bait, the odd manipulation of lines or the wisdom of Milavec's blade and bead creation -- two copper blades, green and white skirt and a crawler under a Dipsy Diver on the No. 3 setting. But the walleye's timing couldn't have been better. The big fish was still in the net when the radio crackled with a Coast Guard warning that boaters should bug out ahead of an incoming lightning storm.
Familiar to Pittsburgh trout anglers as the organizer of the Upper St. Clair Fly Fishing Club, Milavec can take credit for the homemade rig and for noticing the unexpected depth finder blips. But he'll admit the fortuitous tangle was right-place-right-time serendipity.
In past seasons, the 30-year veteran of Erie waters might have hooked into six or eight smaller walleye for every big one. Not this year.
"Out of the last eight walleye that we put into the boat, four of them have been over 8 pounds," he said. "The largest was 10 pounds, 9 ounces, 30 1/4 inches." (See the fish at www.post-gazette.com/fishphotos.)
In 2012, three of the state's five largest certified walleye came from Lake Erie, yet anglers from North East to the Ohio line say their total walleye catches are down. Fewer and bigger has become the new normal, but some anglers are concerned about what that portends for the fish's future. Several theories attempt to explain the trend.
"I think it's because of a poor walleye spawn three or four years ago," said Milavec. "So we have fewer younger fish in the population."
Some think it has something to do with Canada's commercial fishing industry and the walleye and perch harvest limits set annually by the Lake Erie Committee, a consortium of fisheries managers representing Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Michigan and Ontario. In 1980, when the committee started comparing the Total Allowable Catch among commercial and sport anglers with the Total Measured Harvest, an estimated half million more walleye were taken than permitted by treaty.
That has been reversed. In 2012, the measured harvest was more than 1 million under the allowable catch. Lake Erie Committee data for that year show the commercial gill net harvest down 26 percent relative to the previous year, reflecting a downward trend in the total estimated walleye population.
In recent years, Pennsylvania changed the way it sets walleye and perch fishing limits. Prior to 2011, the Fish and Boat Commission responded to the Lake Erie Committee sport fishing quotas released each spring. In an attempt to make the setting of regulations more timely and responsive to fluctuating populations, PFBC now sets daily limits by April 15, before the start of the fishing season.
This year's split season (Jan. 1-March 15 and May 4-Dec. 31) holds the minimum size at 15 inches and the daily creel limit at six. There's no reason to suspect the change in the date when limits are set has negatively changed the fishery.
There's some speculation that the fewer-but-bigger Erie walleye trend is an inaccurate perception resulting from a short-term weather-related phenomenon in which younger and older year classes are swimming in different water temperatures. When anglers hear anecdotal fishing reports of big walleye caught in shallower waters miles closer to shore -- reports such as Milavec's -- they might forgo motoring to farther, deeper waters where more walleye may be found, subsequently catching fewer but bigger fish. Right or wrong, it's social flotsam drifting out of Presque Isle -- no such study has been undertaken.
The biggest, toothiest member of the perch family, Sander vitreus travels, feeds and spawns in schools. Native to the Great Lakes and the Ohio River watershed but stocked extensively, its unusual namesake large, milky eyes -- a membrane behind the retina refracts light -- give the fish a visual edge in turbid or deep, cold waters.
Temperature is among the main factors determining where walleye will go, and distance is no object. Dangling from Milavec's key chain is a metal tag taken from the lip of a walleye that was documented by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in the shallow waters off Sandusky, in western Ohio. Milavec caught it some 800 miles east in the deeper, colder waters off Walnut Creek.huntingfishing