By Rich Davenport, published January 18, 2022
Chautauqua Lake, located in the southwest corner of Chautauqua County, has long been considered one of NY’s premier natural lakes for recreational fishing, and is perhaps WNY’s most productive inland fishery, with only Lake Erie showing higher catch rates for black bass and walleye fishing success.
This appears to be something that will continue for quite some time, as NYSDEC fall electro-fishing surveys seem to indicate. Mike Clancy, DEC Region 9 Fisheries Manager recently presented information to the Western New York Environmental Federation that showed strong populations for walleye, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, indicating the next several years should continue to deliver outstanding recreational angling opportunities.
Walleye have recovered nicely since the crash in the early 2000’s, which prompted DEC to increase protections on walleye, raising the legal minimum size to 18 inches, while reducing daily creel limit to 3 fish per angler per day. At the same time an aggressive stocking effort was implemented to restore the numbers and hopefully restore natural reproduction that had diminished greatly since the late 1990’s. Causes of the decline in walleye numbers, which were found to be very robust in the early 1990’s, was attributed to a number of factors, including changes to development impacting spawning areas, increased nutrient loading from runoff caused by more development along the lake shore, and introduction and establishment of invasive species like the white perch, which are known to be voracious egg-eaters, with a keen preference for walleye eggs. However, by 2014, the restoration efforts and increased protections paid dividends with the confirmation of strong young of the year numbers found during the fall electro-fishing work, with even stronger numbers detected in 2015, prompting the elimination of the special limits, and restoring the statewide 15 inch minimum, 5 fish per day regulations.
The electro-fishing work, typically conducted in one day during early October, sampled 207 walleye, with nearly 60% of fish collected falling into the 15-20 inch category. Another third of fish sampled exceeded 20 inch, with the largest specimen collected measuring just over 26 inches and weighing 6.4 lbs. This year, however, no young of the year fish were collected, but it is not uncommon to see variations in year class strength in natural lakes with diverse fish species populations. Based on collected samples, it is thought that walleye fishing will continue to show outstanding for the next several seasons, at least,
Black bass, both largemouth and smallmouth species, also show some tremendous populations and related fishing success, despite Chautauqua being perhaps the most popular NY Inland Lake for bass tournaments – certainly the top inland lake in Region 9, yet with increased aquatic macrophyte control, coupled with recreational boating popularity, has created a need for DEC to closely monitor for population changes for these warm water species. Nevertheless, survey results suggest bass populations are solid and showing very favorable sizes, with trophy potential for both smallmouth and largemouth bass very strong, as specimens exceeding 20 inches and 5 lbs. were collected during the fall survey work. Strong numbers of juvenile bass, < 10 inches, indicate the future for bass angling on Chautauqua is robust and healthy.
Overall catch rates and angler satisfaction for both bass and walleye fishing in 2021 were well above the lake average, and indications show abundant populations when compared to statewide averages.
However, as changes and pressures rise for increased aquatic herbicide treatments and shifting technologies and evolving fisheries management demands continue, the need to develop a Fisheries Management Plan to help guide decision-making has become something of a priority, not just for Chautauqua Lake, but other top inland lakes throughout the state. This management plan is currently being drafted and is in the early stages, with officials expecting the draft plan to be ready for public scrutiny sometime in 2022. A preview of the mission statement was share with the WNYEF delegates, indicating the premise and potential framework for the plans, as follows:
“Chautauqua Lake currently provides a year-round, recreational fishery that offers high-quality angling opportunities for several warm water species. The fishery is primarily managed for four top-level predator species: walleye, muskellunge, largemouth and smallmouth bass, while providing quality fishing for yellow perch, crappie (black and white), and sunfish (bluegill, pumpkinseed, rock bass). The highly productive conditions combined with extensive, high quality aquatic habitat are critical factors in sustaining this diverse and abundant fishery in Chautauqua Lake. The resulting complex interrelationships between fish populations, as well as human influence and environmental conditions create significant challenges for fisheries management. This plan will identify those challenges and provide a framework to implement management actions and maintain a quality fishery in the future.”
This is one to watch, especially in light of the aquatic herbicide applications that are now under review for 2022. In the DEC’s words: “While it is necessary to balance resource protection and human uses, it is also imperative that environmental and fishery protection measures are exercised to promote and improve high quality aquatic habitat, that will support successful natural reproduction and a diverse ecosystem for the future. Protection of aquatic habitat is critical to maintaining the high-quality recreational fishery in Chautauqua Lake.”
Permit applications for weed control have been submitted for DEC review, with decisions expected on the applications, either denial, approval, or recommended modifications before the plan can proceed is expected sometime this Spring. Fisheries personnel are especially sensitive to these efforts, as in 2018 nearly the entirety of the lake’s south basin saw just about all aquatic vegetation wiped out, as areas for application were unintentionally expanded by strong winds during herbicide application, which resulted in a complete loss of spawning success on all species in the south basin for 2018. To avoid this, DEC set policies to conduct the weed control in very small areas in May, and reserving the larger work until after the spawn and nurturing period towards end of June, into early July. The adoption of a Fisheries Management Plan should reduce or eliminate any confusion that may exist with the herbicide application process and a timing of when the chemical weed control work shall be permitted to occur.