Time to Revive the Saugeye Issue

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

I was driving back from Columbus the other day and decided to check on the fishing activity at Indian Lake. As expected, bank fishermen were found in good numbers along the south shore trying to catch saugeye. Even more could be found below the spillway taking advantage of the saugeye that concentrate there. I pulled into one of the main-lake parking areas to watch for five minutes and saw two nice fish caught in that short period of time. Of course, my first thought was that saugeye needed to be stocked in Grand Lake St. Marys. My second thought was that the fish management people agreed since triploid saugeye were stocked in 2009 and 2010. My third thought was that the only thing stopping more saugeye stocking was stopping fish from leaving the lake, getting into the Miami-Erie Canal feeder, and winding up in the St. Marys River. Say what?

Saugeye are a hearty substitute for walleye and provide an exciting fishery for many of Ohio’s inland lakes, provided they don’t have access to waterways that lead to major walleye populations. That’s not good since it’s important to protect the pure strain of Lake Erie walleye from invasive saugeye. For example, unlike Indian Lake and Lake Loramie, Lake St. Marys offers an escape route for saugeye to eventually reach Ft. Wayne, the Maumee River, and Lake Erie. It’s a smaller problem now since the other possible escapes have been corrected. For example, Eagle Marsh southwest of Ft. Wayne was a possible entry point. During extreme flooding, waters from the Wabash River could reach Lake Erie because the marsh is on a divide. Because of the Asian Carp already in the Wabash, federal and state agencies became concerned that a number of invasive species, including saugeye from Lake St. Marys, might cross either way between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds in such a flood. To prevent this, they expanded an existing berm of the Graham-McCulloch Ditch that runs through Eagle Marsh. Problem solved. A few saugeye from the St. Marys Fish Hatchery have also escaped over the years into the St. Marys River. This problem has been addressed and taken care of.

Today, there is just one more piece of the puzzle to be solved. Find a way to keep saugeye from getting into the canal at the East Bank Bulkhead, and the species can safely be stocked. Will the stocking be effective? Just ask fishermen who caught fish from the 2009-10 stockings. So what’s the holdup? That answer isn’t available locally and probably not available higher up. I attended a meeting three or four years ago where fish management people told fishermen to sit tight and let the bureaucratic wheels churn away at the problem. If my records are correct, consultants were to be retained and potential solutions available by August of 2014. Some of these solutions have been discussed since then, but no action has been taken that I know of, unless you consider no action, action.

Some local fishermen have said that the problems being voiced are trumped up. Since saugeye can’t reproduce, there is no problem other than a manufactured one. Since the 1980’s, fish biologists have known that saugeye can and do reproduce. In the right body of water, with the right conditions, saugeye reproduction takes place, but in a limited way, and not in a way to sustain a population without stocking. Only a small percentage of saugeye that reach adulthood will be capable of producing viable eggs, and if those eggs aren’t deposited in the proper spawning areas, under the right conditions, and fertilized with milt from an equally small percentage of male saugeyes who are virile, it’s a moot point.

It’s highly unlikely that any saugeye escaping from Lake St. Marys would ever make it to Lake Erie waters, and if so, their numbers would be insignificant. However, the word I get from the management experts is that it’s a zero policy when dealing with invasive species. If that’s the case, that will be a difficult policy to enforce and an even more difficult goal to achieve. When sportsmen were actively pushing for saugeye stocking at St. Marys, they were told it might take a couple of years before something would be done. That time-frame has long since passed.

Sure, I can go fish for saugeye at Indian or Loramie, but it seems to me that adding an exciting new fishery to the biggest inland lake in Ohio makes just as much sense. In the grand scheme of things, eliminating the last barrier preventing St. Marys saugeye stocking is a relatively easy fix. If nothing more, by now there should be potential solutions and estimated costs. A lot of management philosophies are based on being reactive. Stocking saugeye in Lake St. Marys calls for a proactive approach. I wonder how long it would take to solve the bulkhead issue if, heaven forbid, Asian Carp were discovered swimming down Chickasaw Creek? The reaction would be swift, for sure.