Fishing’s big on Lake Erie, which has 2 percent of the water and 50 percent of the fish in the Great Lakes. The walleye this season are prolific.

But in past decades fishing used to be even bigger. The Cleveland breakwalls teemed with anglers. And we’ve got the pictures to prove it.

One big draw to the lake was the blue pike, a small subspecies of walleye which is now extinct, said Cleveland Metroparks aquatic biologist Mike Durkalec. “They were in very shallow water, near the shore. They were abundant. They could be caught by the barrelload throughout 1950s and ’60s.”

Then, like now, yellow perch and catfish, were also big draws, he said.

Carl Bachtel explains the passion of fishing: The lure of Lake Erie

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lake Erie was noticeably polluted, with trash and debilitating harmful algal blooms. Though after the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1971, the water began to improve.

In the 1980s, the lake and its fishery began to recover.

“That was a heyday,” Durkalec said. People started buying more recreational boats, and Ohio began stocking steelhead in the lake. 

In the 1990s, the fish got hit by another environmental problem: zebra and quagga mussels, nonnative species that stick to just about anything and cleared the water of plankton eaten by baby fish.

The mussels changed anglers’ tactics, so that they no longer let their boats drift in the wind and instead began trolling.

Now Ohio has a $2.9 billion fishing industry, across all bodies of water.

About 52 percent of all Ohio-licensed anglers fish Lake Erie. That’s about 450,000 anglers, spending 4 million hours a year fishing on Lake Erie.

Many of them are fishing for walleye in what may be the best walleye fishing season Ohio has ever seen.

“Charter captains are loving it. People are buying boats again,” Durkalec said.

Fishing licenses have grown slightly over the past six years, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Fishing Licenses
 
Year
All Fishing
2011-2012
797,912
2012-2013
856,474
2013-2014
869,143
2014-2015
884,703
2015-2016
855,153
2016-2017
885,641
2017-2018
867,728

But “there are so many other things coping for our attention that are not outdoors pursuits,” Durkalec said.

And while you can start fishing any time, the majority of anglers were probably introduced to the sport as children. Then fishing is part of your family culture.

This strong crop of walleye, though, may mean the sport will grow again.

Said Durkalec: “We’re looking at some solid fishing for years to come, and that’s good news.”