9/17/20

2020 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

 


Fall Elk Creek hen steelhead that took a Nagy Bead-Headed Scrambled Eggs on a dead-drift


As of October 11th, the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 60 degrees, off Cleveland was 63 degrees, off Erie was 62 degrees and off Buffalo was 66 degrees.


News Around the Great Lakes

 and the Lake Erie Region


2019 Lake Erie Steelhead Stockings*

*2020 steelhead stocking data not available yet

Lake Erie steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2019 include (total of 1.796 million): PA (1,072,012/60%), OH (512,548/29%), NY (146,760/8%), MI (64,374/4%) and ON (0). This total was slightly above the long-term steelhead stocking average (1990-2018). Percentage stocking increase/decrease for 2019 (versus previous year) are: PA (+9%), OH (+7%), NY ( -42%) and MI (+4%). No steelhead were stocked in Ontario waters in 2019.

The average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked into Lake Erie in 2019 by PA, OH, and MI was 7.5-7.6 inches with NY's average length 5.0 inches.

The 2019 stocking strains of steelhead by the Lake Erie fishery agencies are 97% “naturalized” Great Lakes strains (with West Coast origin). They are as follows: PA (Lake Erie strain collected from Trout Run nursery waters), NY (Washington Strain collected from Lake Ontario's Salmon River in NY), OH (combination of L. Manistee River strain/Lake Michigan, Ganaraska River strain/Lake Ontario and Chambers Creek strain) and MI (L. Manistee River strain/Lake Michigan). MI did an adipose fin clip to yearling steelhead stocked in 2019 (the only fin clip done to steelhead in the Lake Erie basin since 2016).

The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) 2019 steelhead smolt stocking was below the stocking target of 255,000 due to shortages at the Salmon River State Fish Hatchery. Most the tributaries were affected including Cattaraugus Creek stocked with 43,640 steelhead yearlings (NYSDEC target stocking was 90,000 steelhead).

The NYSDEC also stocked into Cattaraugus, Eighteen Mile, Canadaway, Chautauqua Creeks a total of 61,000 fall fingerling domestic rainbow trout (which averaged 6.5 inches) in late October 2019, exceeding the stocking target of 45,000 fish. This was a result of surplus fish being available at the Bath State Fish Hatchery.

The domestic rainbow trout stocking was done by the NYSDEC to replace their Lake Erie brown trout stocking program (which was terminated in 2017 (due to unreliable results in the lake, nearshore and tributaries). Similar stockings were done in the fall of 2017 and 2018 by the NYSDEC. In addition to the fall fingerlings, the NYSDEC also planted 5,000 yearling domestic rainbow trout into Eighteen Mile Creek in mid-April of 2019.

Despite having the smallest average mean length of steelhead yearlings stocked into Lake Erie in recent years (due to restrictive growth from the cold water in-flow at the Salmon River Fish Hatchery), NYSDEC 2017-2018 Lake Erie steelhead tributary surveys show catch rates of .56 fish/hr on the NY Lake Erie tributaries. These are among the highest in the country and comparable to NYSDEC catch rates documented in the mid 2000's. The downside from the surveys is that total catch rates remain well below estimates from surveys done between 2003 and 2008. Yes, those were the glory days!

The NYSDEC Tributary Angler Surveys (which are done on a 3 year cycle) help the NYSDEC monitor fishery performance and evaluate progress of goals set in the NYSDEC Steelhead Management Plan for Lake Erie steelhead tributaries.

Update: According to Jim Markham of the NYSDEC, findings from a 2019 NYSDEC study titled, "Steelhead Smolt and Location on Emigration and Adult Returns in Chautauqua Creek, NY" (written by Markham), and a 2020 NYSDEC Salmon River Fish Hatchery Bureau Technical Brief on evaluating experimental fish culture techniques to improve steelhead stocking size, have begun to be implemented in the 2020 NYSDEC Lake Erie spring steelhead smolt stocking program. The reports showed that adult steelhead returns were 2-3 times higher when steelhead were stocked with a larger average mean size (5.9 inches or greater), even if stocked at 1/2 the historic target stocking numbers.

Other recommended stocking strategies included planting larger steelhead smolts well upstream of the Lake confluence to facilitate imprinting and stock smolts late March/early April to allow smolts to acclimate and imprint prior to May tributary temperature increases. Markham says there should be steady improvements in the steelhead fishing on the NY Lake Erie tributaries as the stocking program improvements progress into the future. Critical to this though, is that that the Salmon River Fish Hatchery continue to experiment and implement water flow, temperature and fish density adjustments to produce a larger average steelhead smolt size.


2019 Lake Erie Brown Trout Stockings*

*2020 brown trout stocking data not available yet


The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) stocked approximately 132,496 yearling and adult brown trout in its Lake Erie waters in 2019 (the only fishery agency stocking brown trout into Lake Erie presently). This is a 34 % increase versus 2018. 

The PF&BC has now developed a captive brood stock source for its Lake Erie brown trout program. In previous years it had depended on the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for certified IPN free brown trout eggs.

For 2019 Lake Erie steelhead/brown trout stocking by specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2019 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (pages 30-32):

http://www.glfc.org/pubs/lake_committees/erie/CWTG_docs/annual_reports/CWTG_report_2020.pdf


Sea Lamprey


Wounding rates recorded by the NYSDEC of Lake Trout in Lake Erie (which have traditionally been an indication of Lake Erie sea lamprey populations) have remained relatively stable the last 20 years but are still above target levels acceptable for the Lake. The NYSDEC has also found lamprey wounds on Lake Erie warm water species such as bass and walleye.

Surveys by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) in the last few years (including adult, juvenile and larval assessments) have shown that the biggest source of Lake Erie sea lamprey production could be the St Clair River versus the traditionally monitored and treated streams in the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

Clear Creek, Spooner Creek and Derby Brook (tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek) were treated with lampricide in April 2019 (the main stem of the Cat was treated in June due to high water in April). Cayuga Creek a tributary of the Buffalo River was treated for the first time in 2019.

Lamprey barriers are a very effective method for blocking sea lamprey movement. In 2019, surveys were conducted at barriers on 12 Lake Erie tributaries (8 in US/4 in Canada) and showed all were effective lamprey blockers except for the barrier on Venison Creek (a tributary of Big Creek).

New lamprey barrier projects in the Lake Erie watershed include the following: Black River/MI (Wingford Dam removal and lamprey barrier), Clinton River/MI (lamprey barrier for natural bypass channel around Yates Mill Dam/2020), Cattaraugus Creek/NY (Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project which includes a Denil fish-way with a seasonal trap and sort operation/2021), Grand River/OH (lamprey barrier in new dam at Harpersfield/2020).


Asian Carp


An August 2019 released study by the University of Michigan has revealed that Asian Carp species such as Silver and Big Head Carp have flexible diets and can feed more than 1 meter below the surface in Lake Michigan.

The study showed that these voracious feeders not only target algae and plankton (which is actually declining in Lake Michigan due to reduced phosphorous pollution and invasive zebra and quagga mussels) but can feed on dead organic matter or “detritus”. Invasive mussels discharge enormous amounts of nutrient dense waste (a form of detritus) onto the Lake Michigan lake bed every year.

Since earlier Asian Carp studies did not look at the flexibility of Asian Carp feeding habits as well as how deep they can feed (which increases their survivability if and when they enter Lake Michigan), the Asian Carp threat to the Great Lakes becomes even more serious.

In July 2020, Congress funded The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) approved $778 million plan to block Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes. Ground zero for the USACE plan is a concrete channel and electric barrier at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in the Illinois River. The USACE link for the plan is:

https://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental-Protection-and-Restoration/GLMRIS-BrandonRoad/

Congress also funded the USACE $3 million to research ways to fight harmful algae blooms that are common in the Western Lake Erie Basin.


Lake Erie Prey Fish


NYSDEC’s The Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit (LEFRU) performs several lake surveys yearly geared toward understanding predator/prey fish community in Lake Erie.

These studies include trawling to assess prey fish abundance, studying predator diet and monitoring the lower web food.

Initial trawling surveys showed the rainbow smelt have been the dominant forage fish in the lake. Goby abundance was initially high (after their introduction in the late 1990’s) but has now dropped to lower numbers.

According to the NYSDEC the overall biomass of soft-rayed forage fishes decreased in 2019 and was well below average (due to a decrease in emerald shiners and low abundance of adult smelt). Smelt were almost absent from walleye diets in 2019 but remained an important diet item for lake trout. Also, over the last three years, there has been a general shift in predator diets from smelt to a more diverse diet including goby, yellow perch and other fishes.

A general trend of declining forage base in Lake Erie since 2014 has not indicated a decline in growth and condition of predator fish like Lake Trout (although recent declines in walleye growth and condition have been observed). Further studies are needed to determine if the declining Lake Erie forage base is affecting Lake Erie steelhead populations.


Mass Steelhead Marking


Fishery agencies of the GLFC have decided to abandon a plan for mass marking steelhead in Lake Erie.

The initial plan looked to find the impact of steelhead in the Lake Erie fishery (namely the forage base), performance of specific fishery agency stocking programs and improved management polices to benefit tributary steelhead fishing. The proposal would of included lake wide and specific agency goals, a steelhead study plan and logistics to implement the mass steelhead marking. Big questions that could be answered include steelhead strain performance, stocking strategies, growth, adult return rates and steelhead natural reproduction contributions.

The consensus was that any information collected by this research did not justify the amount of effort and cost involved. With that being said, specific Lake Erie fishery agencies have been given the green light by the GLFC to move forward with their own mass marking program if desired.


Ohio


Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project


In 2018, work on the Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project on the Grand River, OH by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) included a review of the Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) and the barrier design (326 foot solid concrete sea lamprey barrier which replaces the 100 year old hollow core dam above Harpersfield Covered Bridge).

Priorities for the design included a 18 inch drop between dam crest height and dam tail water elevations. Also, water flow velocities high enough to prevent sea lamprey passage during flooding events.

Construction of the barrier began in the fall of 2018 was completed in April 17, 2020. Final costs for the project were around $7 million.

Ashtabula County is planning the rehabilitation of the bridge below the Harpersfield Dam. Work is expected to start in 2021-2022.

The USACE link for this project (including photos/time laps video):

https://www.usace.army.mil/Media/News-Releases/News-Release-Article-View/Article/2154044/primary-construction-work-completed-at-harpersfield-dam/ 


Pennsylvania


New Public Fishing Access


Volunteers with the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association (PSA), on August 24, 2019, improved a fishing trail leading from Lucas Road to Crooked Creek (just south of the Conrail tracks and Happy Valley Rd). This section of Crooked Creek has a new public fishing access (including a gravel parking lot) a result of a PF&BC Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP) easement. Additional LEAIP public access on Crooked Creek is just downstream of here (on the south side of Happy Valley Rd) where the PF&BC also plans to build a new parking area for fishing.

A new PF&BC LEAIP easement on Seven Mile Creek in Harbor creek Township, Erie County has been finalized and open to fishing. The easement cost $105,000 and is located on both sides of Seven Mile Creek (35 feet from stream bank) north of Route 5 on the Benedictine Sisters' property.


Landowner Fruit Baskets


For over 10 years fruit baskets have been given to Pennsylvania Lake Erie Tributary private landowner's in appreciation for letting steelheader's fish on their land (88 were delivered in 2019). The PSA, Sons of Lake Erie, Gem Cities Outdoorsman Club, Northwest PA Chapter of TU and individual donors have contributed to the program. Anyone interested in donating can send donations to: Pennsylvania Steelhead Association, P.O. Box 8892, Erie, PA 16505.

New York


Cattaraugus Creek Lake Trout Stocking


In October 2019, the NYSDEC stocked 40,223 fall fingerling lake trout (Finger Lakes Strain) into Cattaraugus Creek. This was the second year of lake trout stocking of the Cat (it is planned to be stocked with laker's again this fall/2020).

This stocking initiative is a pilot plan to determine if stream stocked lake trout can survive and return to the stream in the fall. The goal is to establish a reliable returning adult spawning population. In the fall of 2020, electrofishing surveys and an ongoing tributary angler survey will evaluate how successful the program is.


Springville Dam


The Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY is currently in the engineering and design phase and facilitating budget and real estate needs. The Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) was signed by the USACE, NYSDEC and Erie County, NY in 2017. Construction is targeted for 2021 after the sea lamprey spawning run. (Note: Project Partners including the NYSDEC, USACE and Erie County have decided to put the project on hold in 2020 due to impacts from the CO-VID 19 Pandemic.)

The selected plan for the project will lower the existing spillway from 38 to 13.5 feet to serve as a sea lamprey barrier. A 15 foot wide rock riffle ramp (denil fish-way) with seasonal lamprey trapping/sorting capability is included in the design. Requests from the National Historic Registry will be fulfilled by preserving a portion of the original spillway on both banks to show the original structure.

In the meantime, James Markham, Senior Aquatic Biologist with the NYSDEC, is continuing a research project he began last year in some of the major tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek (upstream of the dam) to determine possible impacts to the local fish community once the steelhead pass over the dam. The research project will include pre-fish data (collected prior to fish passage over the dam) and regular collection intervals (every 2-3 years) after fish passage over the dam.

Markham says that the NYSDEC has decided to maintain the current inland trout regulations above the dam, meaning that it will primarily be Catch-and-Release, Artificial Lure Only from mid-October until April 1. This keeps in line with the NYSDEC Steelhead Management Plan (completed in 2016) to promote natural steelhead reproduction when practical.

For a video of the Springville Dam PPA signing and discussion of the project please click on the following:

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1629197503780864

See past John Nagy Fall Steelhead Report’s and News (in the right menu bar) for background information on this project.

Much of the fishery data and information for this 2018 Fall Steelhead Report was referenced from the 2019 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/Lake Erie Cold Water Task Group Report and the 2019 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report.