Lake Erie Steelhead Stocking Program - The life-span of hatchery reared Lake Erie steelhead is approximately seven years, but most are harvested by anglers in four years or less.
Year-old, stocked smolts swim and grow larger for one or two years in Lake Erie before returning to their stocking location during a “seasonal run.” The majority of fish caught by anglers are 3-years old. The fish average 23-26” long and weigh four to seven pounds. Fish in the 10 pound range, [<10%], represent a special trophy group. Some of these fish may even be “repeat runners” – returning to the tributary from the lake for the second time!
Lake Erie’s steelhead fishery is a first-class example of “put and take” management that works. I say kudos to the government agencies and organization volunteers who invest the money and time to serve our fishing needs. Without their efforts, fall and spring in northwestern Pennsylvania, western New York and northern Ohio would not be the same.
Counting the fish – Pennsylvania annually releases about 1,000,000 steelhead smolts in Presque Isle Bay and the Pennsylvania tributaries flowing into Lake Erie. You can add to that number another 880,000 or so stocked by our neighbors. New York, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario have similar programs.
Investing the dollars – Using budget figures provided from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The estimated cost to rear and stock one smolt in Lake Erie comes to about $.72. That puts the annual tab for all Lake Erie’s steelhead programs at $1,353,600. Now that is one serious stocking program no matter how you measure it.
Professional fishery managers, biologists, and “Joe Angler” all accept the fact that not all smolts live long once they enter a tributary. Stocked smolts face a challenging journey from the stocking site to Lake Erie. Fish-eating birds and waterfowl are the first arrivals at the “smolt buffet”. Anglers spring fishing for steelhead, no matter how careful, do plenty of damage too. Once they arrive in Lake Erie, smolts get a greeting from walleye, bass, etc. You get the picture.
How many of those tiny smolts survive long enough to mature in Lake Erie and return to your favorite “honey hole”? Finding current research studies that would answer that question is not easy, and the cost to conduct new scientific research is substantial.
I did find older research studies [1999, 2000] that estimate the smolt to adult survival [SAS]. I also got an immediate and thoughtful response from agency professionals in PA, NY and OH. What I read in the research and in my received email comments puts the SAS estimate at 5%. Ouch!
Anglers who watched mergansers gorge themselves on newly stock smolts feel the pain.
Doing the math - $1,353,600 annually is invested to rear and stock1,880,000 steelhead. Of the steelhead stocked, an estimated 5% or 94,000 survive after stocking and return during a “seasonal run”. To be fair, you should add together the maturing fish making a first run, jacks/skippers from a younger age class, and a small number of “multiple-year runners” that survived their first trip upstream.
Okay, when you get out the calculator and read the bottom line, that steelhead on your stringer or the fish you released is worth about $14!
Lake Erie steelhead program - is the return on investment worth it?
As with most recreational activities, it is not always about dollars and cents.
For me, the experience of catching a 10-pound trout is priceless so I say yes – the return is worth the investment.
I believe you also get a “yes” from the majority of PA anglers and out-of-state anglers who travel from many states and foreign countries to fish for steelhead in Lake Erie tributaries.
For sure, you get a yes too from the throngs of Allegheny County/SW Pennsylvania area anglers who weekly dance the "up and back I-79 shuffle”. Erie businesses that serve anglers say ye$ too – the economic impact to the region is in the millions.
Now that you know how difficult and expensive it is to go from steelhead egg to 10-pound trophy, you may be more willing to exercise catch & release. I will.
Keep in mind that in the absence of definitive, scientific studies, we can only estimate the numbers represented here. The professionals responsible for Lake Erie’s steelhead stocking continue to refine, adjust and improve their respective programs. They deserve your support.
Special thanks to these state agency employees who provided information for this article - Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission - Brian B. Wisner, Director, Bureau of Hatcheries; Chuck Murray, Fisheries Biologist; Eric Levis, Press Secretary; Timothy Schaeffer, Director of the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Communications; Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Kevin Kayle, Fish Hatchery Program Administrator, Division of Wildlife; Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Jeffrey Braunscheidel, Senior Fisheries Biologist Lake Erie Management Unit, Fisheries Division; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - James L. Markham, Senior Aquatic Biologist Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit.