Water Quality Through The Eyes Of The Walleye

Stream bank stabilization is one way to help improve Chautauqua's walleye and other game fish populations. CWC photo

It’s the beginning of April, and most fish species in Chautauqua Lake are preparing for the spawning season. Black and white crappie, yellow perch, walleye and bass are all beginning to stage at the mouths of Chautauqua Lake’s tributaries. Many fish species will “run” into the streams at different times in the spring to spawn but will generally use similar areas of the stream for reproduction.

Chautauqua Lake supports a wide variety of game fish species, including walleye. Walleye are members of the perch family and have large canine-like teeth which allow it to be one of the top predator species in the Chautauqua Lake food web. Anglers actively target this game species due to its mild taste and large relative size. The peak angling period for this species starts in the early part of May and runs through the end of September.

Historically, Chautauqua Lake’s walleye fishery has primarily relied on natural reproduction, but a decline in walleye numbers in the 1990s led the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to begin a walleye stocking program in 2003, with an annual stocking of 130,000 50-day fingerlings and 130,000 pond fingerlings. It also implemented a special regulation in 2012 that restricted the size and number of walleye that an angler could keep from five fish a day at 15 inches minimum to three fish a day at 18 inches minimum. The stocking program and the special regulations stopped in 2015 and 2016 respectively due to some of the strongest year classes ever observed in 2014 and 2015. In 2018, a fall boat electrofishing survey of Chautauqua Lake by DEC Region 9 fisheries staff documented some of the highest numbers of young of the year walleye catch rates in past 10 years (2018 Chautauqua Lake Annual Fall Walleye Survey, published in January 2019 by NYSDEC). Spawning success is often reflected in the densities of the young of the year.

Walleye are known to spawn on rocky shorelines and in stream systems where there are plenty of gravel and cobble substrates for them to make a redd (or nest) and typically spawn in early April when the stream temperatures are between 42 degrees F and 46 degrees F. Chautauqua Lake’s tributaries serve as a good nursery habitat for the eggs and fry in which to grow and survive due to the limited risk of predation. Stream environments are often more rich in oxygen than the lake itself, which also aids in egg and fry survival.

In order for walleye to continue to be successful in Chautauqua Lake, it is important that the lake’s tributaries maintain conditions which are conducive to spawning, such as gravelly bottoms and cool waters. In other words, it is vitally important to reduce the amount of erosion and sedimentation that occurs in the lake’s tributaries in order to help protect the lake’s walleye population. As stream banks erode, the trees and shrubs which shade and cool the water die off, and the eroded sediments are deposited into the stream, resulting in a siltier, muddier stream bottom and mouth as well as warmer waters.

New York State Water Quality Improvement Projects (WQIPs) have been completed on several Chautauqua Lake tributary streams over the past few years with the goal of reducing erosion and sedimentation in those streams. These projects included work on Ball, Bemus, Dewittville, Dutch Hollow, Goose, Prendergast and West Dutch Hollow Creeks. Of these Chautauqua Lake tributaries, walleye are known to spawn in Bemus, Dewittville and Dutch Hollow Creeks. These WQIP projects not only work to reduce the amount of sediment and nutrient loading to the lake but also provide better spawning conditions for the lake’s walleye populations as well as other fish species. Willow and dogwood plantings at these WQIP project sites are shading (and thus cooling) the water, and added stream bank rock protection is helping to prevent erosion, both of which are providing a cleaner environment in which fish may spawn.

While it’s important to remember that many factors can impact walleye abundance in the lake, streambank stabilization is one way the public and local organizations can help improve Chautauqua’s walleye and other game fish populations.

Partners on these WQIP projects are Chautauqua County, the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, Chautauqua County Soil & Water Conservation District and the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. Funding was provided in part by the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Chautauqua County, through a share of its Occupancy Tax Program and reallocated Chautauqua Lake Management Commission capital funds, provided the local match funds for these projects.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.