Biologist Tim Wilson with a large Pymatuning Lake walleye.
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission
Death might finally spring life into the Pymatuning Lake walleye fishery.
The 17,088-acre lake in northwestern Pennsylvania, which straddles the Ohio line, is packed full of walleyes. Of that there’s no doubt.
Biologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission surveyed it each spring but one from 1989 through 2018. Catches are tallied on a walleyes per hour basis.
The second- and third-best catches ever occurred in 2018 and 2017, respectively. The totals are about double the long-term average.
“We really did well on the walleyes again,” said Tim Wilson, a biologist in the commission’s area 1 office in Linesville, Crawford County. “Last year wasn’t some kind of freak anomaly. There fish are there.”
This year, the average fish is nice, too.
Biologists caught 3,801 walleyes in trap nets. They ranged in size from 7 to 28 inches, with 92 percent of them between 15 and 22. The average fish was 18.5.
A walleye needs to be only 15 inches to harvest.
And yet, for all that, to hear anglers tell it, the fishing has been decidedly mediocre.
Too many baitfish has been the problem, Wilson said.
“The primary culprit was a massive year class of gizzard shad in the 5- to 7-inch range,” he wrote in a recent report. “However, alewives and spottail shiners were also above their long-term averages of abundance.”
Pymatuning Lake walleyes had so much to eat they were just hard to catch, Wilson said.
But this past winter eased that problem.
Long, hard winters kill shad. Pyatuning Lake finally, for the first time in several years, had one of those in 2017-18, Wilson said.
There was a large shad die-off in February and March.
“Subsequently, this year’s trap net catches of gizzard shad were substantially lower than last year,” Wilson wrote.
That’s good news.
Pymatuning’s walleyes and other predatory fish are in no danger of starving. The alewive catch was up over last year and the lake’s forage base remains “large and diverse.”
But Pymatuning Lake’s walleyes may, finally, be easier to catch than in recent years.
Wilson wants that as much as anyone.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he said. “After the last few years, when you’re telling everybody that there’s a ton of fish, and nobody’s catching any? To finally have them start catching some is a good thing.”
That’s happening, he said.
The lake has been very busy this spring, in part courtesy of crappie anglers. But fishermen are getting walleyes, too.
“From what I’ve seen things look good and they’re catching fish,” Wilson said.
So all those gizzard shad didn’t die in vain. From death comes life, and good angling.
Other fish at Pymatuning Lake
This year’s survey of Pymatuning Lake revealed other news, some good, some bad.
First, the good.
Pymatuning Lake has a growing reputation as a musky fishery. This year’s trap net catch suggests it’s well deserved. Biologists handled 89 muskies between 29 and 44 inches long.
Anglers are catching some, too. The Three Rivers Chapter of Muskies Inc. recently held a tournament on Pymatuning. Forty-four anglers registered; they caught 48 fish, “a club best,” with two stretching 47 inches.
The lake’s panfish also look good. Biologists handled about 1,500 crappies, with blacks outnumbering whites 15 to 1. Some were as large as 15 inches. They also got 1,400 or so yellow perch, some 14 inches, and 634 bluegills, some 9 inches.
Channel catfish aren’t as numerous as previously. But biologist Tim Wilson said the fishery is still a very good one, with fish up to 28 inches.
Now, the bad.
A new species turned up in Pymatuning Lake this year. And it could cause problems.
Fish and Boat Commission crews caught two white perch. That’s in addition to three the Ohio Division of Wildlife got last fall.
“Just like other aquatic invasive species, white perch may have significant negative effects on fish communities where they are introduced,” Wilson wrote.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, white perch feast on fish eggs in spring, their own as well as those of bass, walleyes and other species. In cases, they eat so many as to crash walleye populations.
At the same time, biologists said the virus that killed carp in Pymatuning Lake last year is likely to kill more this year.
To ease those problems, the Fish and Boat Commission recommends anglers and boaters clean all their gear between fishing trips and leave the stocking of fish to the professionals.
A Pymatuning Lake musky.
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission