Posted Jun 25, 2020 at 12:02 AM
Updated Jun 25, 2020 at 8:56 AM
Lake Erie walleye surge expected
The walleye numbers “are absolutely incredible,” the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie president said.
Wildlife experts have forecast a productive walleye season this year, estimating the population of Lake Erie’s most popular sport fish at more than 100 million.
Anglers had plenty of reason to be excited, but the COVID-19 pandemic might have quelled some of that enthusiasm.
Many questions will be answered in the coming weeks. Erie County is set to hit the green phase of the state’s reopening plan on Friday right around the time the fishing season heats up.
Local fishing charters will be hoping to capitalize on the projected boom of walleye. Some will be trying to make up for lost business early in the season. Others have yet to host their first service of the year. All will be adjusting to COVID-19 regulations.
Other effects of the pandemic might take longer to be felt as the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie fishing club had its biggest annual project washed away. The organization harvests and stocks about 1 million walleye into Presque Isle Bay each year, but had to cancel this season.
Despite facing stricter regulations earlier in the season, some local charters were not deterred from getting on the water.
At the Lake Ministries has not been as lucky. Created to serve those with special needs and their families, ATLM suspended its operations and will not be on the water until Erie County reaches the green phase.
Local hatchery zeroes in 2020
For only the second time in 35 years, S.O.N.S. had a fruitless walleye harvest. It previously failed to produce a strong harvest in 1985.
The pandemic has also forced S.O.N.S. to cancel its annual open house, a fundraising event and all meetings through August.
“We had no idea where this thing was going, so we elected not to (hatch walleye),” said S.O.N.S. President Jerry Skrypzak. “That was unusual for us. We didn’t like it at all.”
The annual fundraiser draws more than 500 people annually and is a large source of income for the organization. Several other cancellations have followed. S.O.N.S. has been hesitant to get involved with many events because of the average age of their volunteers.
“That’s the hardest part,” Skrypzak said. “Unfortunately, they’re all older. Most are in their 60s and 70s and that’s the group of people that are most susceptible to the virus.”
Despite the inability to produce a local walleye harvest, S.O.N.S. representatives Skrypzak and Zawadzki still envision a strong season. Zawadzki said the effects of this season will not be known for three years until the fish are mature enough to be kept.
″ (The numbers) are absolutely incredible,” Skrypzak said. “If you can’t catch one, there’s something wrong with you. We’ve seen such a surge of them.”
When the walleye begin to migrate to the lake’s central basin off Erie, Zawadzki expects anglers will come out in droves.
“The walleye want a certain temperature,” he said. “They’ll start moving this way to find the temperature they want. People have flown over the lake in small planes and have seen big schools.
“As soon as we have a few decent days, the phone (for reservations) will start going. Once they find out how we’re doing and how we’re being CDC-compliant, people will come up.”
Walleye surge expected
The Perch Pirate operates for Tell No Tales Charters. It is licensed for 44 people, but typically has embarked with 20 in past years. This year, the boat has dropped to roughly 16 per trip.
The fishing action has been slow so far off the Erie shoreline. Zawadzki, who has been involved in the charter business since the 1980s, expects the action to pick up.
“We haven’t had any super-duper days,” Zawadzki said. “But we tell our fishermen, this is the time to practice and figure out what you’re doing.”
The main adjustments have been focused on adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. In order to get on the boat, Perch Pirate customers must have their temperatures taken. Everyone is required to wear a mask.
“Above 99 (degrees), you’re not getting on the boat,” Zawadzki said. “We tell them this up front. (Customers) can bring their own sanitizer or we will sell it to them. They can wear gloves if they want.”
Getting ahead of the game
While Zawadzki looks forward to the walleye boom off Erie later this summer, fellow captain Kevin Battista is already deep into the season on the lake’s western basin.
Battista, a resident of Burgettstown, makes a yearly trip to Port Clinton and charters three months there. After that, he sets up in Erie, where he charters the Lucky Penny from July through September.
″ (Port Clinton) is a tourist delight in the spring,” Battista said. “You wouldn’t know the difference right now, except people have masks on.”
Battista captains smaller “six-pack boats” and has more than 30 years of chartering experience. He is renting a charter now on Lake Erie’s western basin.
At the beginning of the season, the six-pack boats were limited to only two customers. Restrictions have been loosened since then.
Some anglers canceled their tours at the beginning of the season. Battista expects business to pick up considerably now that Erie County is going green.
“The phone is starting to ring again and I’m starting to book some people,” he said.
The Lucky Penny captain understands that some fishermen may be apprehensive, so he has offered to return deposits to patrons with hopes of rescheduling for 2021.
“We wipe down our stuff several times and just try to keep it sanitary and as safe as possible,” Battista said. “I think people are a little tentative, but by July, we’ll be back to normal. Life will return to normal, but it’s going to be a new normal.”
Waiting out the storm
At the Lake Ministries is one charter currently on hold. It is supported by the Western PA Conference of the United Methodist Church.
ATLM Executive Director Rev. Rob Wilson said his organization must handle COVID-19 differently than most other charters.
“We wouldn’t operate unless we were in the green phase,” he said. “Out of abundance of caution and out of deep care and love for those that we serve, we take every opportunity to be sure of the safety of our guests.”
For now, ATLM is preparing for the arrival of the green phase. Extra preparations are being made on the boat and proper protocols are being put in place.
Wilson hopes to have a better idea of the state of ATLM by July and whether it will aim to get back on the water this year or postpone operations until 2021. Now in its second season, the charter service had planned to run May through October until the pandemic struck.
“We want our guests to feel loved and be healthy when all is over for the day,” Wilson said. “So we will be careful before we go ahead and do anything as far as opening it up.”
A nonprofit business, ATLM relies on backing from the United Methodist Church and any fees to keep it viable. Wilson is optimistic that the organization can weather the COVID-19 crisis.
“Any fees or costs that we receive from guests allow the ministry to be perpetuated,” he said. “With that said, there have been a number of people who have been very generous in their contributions.
“A large part of this is dependent on people and their generosity and willingness to support the ministry as a whole, which I’m so grateful for.”
Follow him on Twitter @ETNreilly.