Troubled Waters

As the walleye takes a dive, so does the charter business.

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Art Uhas (right) and Bill Brown, hoping to get their lures wet. - Walter  Novak
Art Uhas (right) and Bill Brown, hoping to get their lures wet.
It's a sunny Friday morning, with birds chirping beneath an azure sky, and Art Uhas and Bill Brown are right where they like to be—up to their elbows in fish guts.

Uhas, 72, used to butcher beef and chicken for a living, and it shows. He expertly chops his way through a cooler of fish, the result of a successful morning on Lake Erie with Brown, his longtime fishing partner.

"See, they're feeding on two- to three-inch smelt," Brown says after Uhas slices open the stomach of a lunker, revealing a handful of partially digested silver baitfish. "Now we know what size lure to use."

It's that kind of inside information that has kept Brown and Uhas's freezers full of fish, particularly the prized walleye. But they admit it's getting tougher to catch the fish, whose tasty fillets started a bona fide tourism boom on Lake Erie in the late 1980s. Now, for a variety of reasons, there are fewer walleyes in Lake Erie, and the fish out there are tougher to catch. It's a conundrum that is having very real economic consequences in Cleveland and throughout the state.

"I'd say we're on a downhill slide," says Brown, 68. "We're catching fish that are eight and nine years old. They predicted we'd be catching more fish, but I don't see 'em out there."

Brown used to run a fishing charter service out of Eastlake, where he docks his boat on the Chagrin River. But he stopped this year, as the fishing became spotty. "They want fish," Brown says of his former customers. "When they're paying $400 and catch eight fish, they're not happy. I can understand that."

Brown isn't the only one who's gotten out of the charter business. The number of charter boats on the lake has dropped to around 950, down from 1,200 during the peak years in the 1980s, when just about anyone with a rod, reel, and worm could catch a stringer full of walleyes.

Sales of fishing licenses have slipped too, dropping from 1.2 million licenses sold in 1987 to 750,000 last year. Mike Costello, Lake Erie program manager with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, says the decline in fishing licenses is directly linked to the drop in walleyes. Scientists estimate there are now sixty million walleyes in Lake Erie, down from 140 million during the peak years.

Zebra mussels are one factor in the equation. The thumbnail-sized mollusks are an exotic species, introduced into Lake Erie from Europe via ocean freighters. They eat by filtering plankton out of the water, in the process absorbing the bulk of the lake's supply of phosphorus, an element crucial to sustaining fish populations.

The zebra mussels exacerbated an already tenuous situation, according to Costello, who characterizes the walleye boom as an anomaly and says, over the long term, the lake could not realistically sustain that population. "We had more walleye than we ever had," he notes. "Then the productivity of the lake was lowered. It simply can't hold that many fish anymore."

What's more, the zebra mussels have made the water in Lake Erie—the self-anointed "walleye capital of the world"—clearer. While that's good news to many recreational users, it's tough on fishermen, because fish are less likely to bite on their lures. That's particularly true of walleyes, a species noted for its superior eyesight. As the water has cleared, the walleyes have moved into deeper water and are now more likely to feed at night.

That means anglers are returning with fewer fish. "It used to be we'd be coming in with thirty or forty fish," Brown says, standing before boats with names like Hooked for Reel and Aqua-Holic. "Now we come in with fifteen."

Brown's pain is felt by James Novak, a Clevelander who serves as treasurer of the North Coast Charter Boat Association. "To this point we haven't done too well," Novak says when asked about the success of the charters he's led. "It means you have to work harder to catch fewer fish. Then you have disappointed customers."

Diehards like Brown, Uhas, and Novak will fish for the rest of their lives. But as the walleye surge has cooled, many of the less enthusiastic fishermen who went on the charters have stopped fishing altogether. That's put a serious dent in the $150 million that state officials estimate is spent annually on walleye fishing on Lake Erie.

Costello says the drop in fishing licenses has occurred mainly in urban areas. "Our evidence is, it's the casual anglers who took one to three trips a year," Costello says. "It can be a pretty expensive novelty that quickly wears off if you're not catching as many fish."

Tourism and state officials note that the drop in walleye fishing has been offset somewhat by an increased interest in fishing for smallmouth bass. They also point out that the walleye fishing on Lake Erie is still good, just not as spectacular as it was during the boom years. Towns around the western basin of Lake Erie are still buzzing at 5 a.m., as fishermen head to their boats, and the city of Port Clinton still rings in every new year by dropping a twenty-foot fiberglass walleye at midnight. But for guys like Brown and Uhas, who continue to pull in older fish with nary a nibble from younger ones, the prognosis is not good.

"Two years from now, I don't know what happens," Brown says. "I don't know, and I don't think anyone else knows."

Mike Tobin can be reached at [email protected].

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