By LOUIE STOUT
THE GOSHEN NEWS
When Barry Ukele and a handful of others started the Michiana Walleye Association in 1993, they shared a dream of consistently catching keeper walleyes from the St. Joseph River.
They launched a stocking program with help from the DNR, and while the river has produced decent walleye fishing, keeper-size fish have been scarce.
Until this year.
“We’ve always been able to catch 6 or 8 sublegal and maybe one legal fish (15-plus inches),” noted Ukele. “But this season has been different. One week this summer, I was catching 8 to 10 keepers and 6 non-keepers. It’s been fantastic all year.”
The difference? River biologist Neil Ledet credits the cooperative efforts with the club to stock larger fish in fewer numbers. The survival is much better as the bigger walleyes survive the winter better and grow faster.
That strategy continued this week when the club and the DNR deposited more than 13,000 chunky, young walleyes into the river. They were released at Maggie’s Landing above the Twin Branch dam and at Midway Bait and Tackle at County Line Road.
The fish were super healthy and measured 6 to 8 inches with a few 10 inchers mixed in. They were purchased from Gollon Bait and Fish Farm, Dodgeville, Wisc. for about $2 each. The DNR money (11,000 fish) came from funds it receives from AEP for river fishery projects while the MWA accrued its money for another 2,000 fish through club projects and fund-raisers.
In the early years, the DNR and club stocked 3-inch fingerlings in high numbers but survival was inconsistent. Many of the keeper fish caught this summer were the result of a 2011 stocking in which bigger fish were used.
“I’m convinced that’s why you’re seeing more keeper-size fish this year,” said Ledet. “The bigger fish are really paying off. Every time we sample in the spring, we’re seeing good survival of those bigger fish stocked in the fall.”
The stocking is conducted in every odd number year.
So, why not do it every year?
Ledet says that formula has exhibited proven success for other states. Also, the Elkhart-to-Twin Branch pool of the river has a lot of other gamefish, so he worries about putting too many young mouths in the river and creating too much pressure on the smaller forage. He doesn’t believe skipping a year will impact the fishery given the strong survival of the larger walleyes, but will survey the river periodically to see how the fish are doing.
In the meantime, Ukele hopes walleye anglers will be selective in the walleyes they keep. His club members practice catch and release of all walleyes they catch; while he acknowledges the public’s right to keep legal fish, he’s concerned with the number of smaller fish going onto stringers.
“It’s a bit confusing to some people because Indiana has a 14-inch size limit on other waters, but it’s 15 on the St. Joe,” he offered. “We hope that anglers will use some discretion in the fish they keep. This is still a fragile fishery, but the future looks really bright.”
The walleye club already has fired up its fund-raising efforts for a 2015 stocking. They welcome individual and business donations and will have collection jars at various businesses around the area.
More fish moved into Indiana waters of the St. Joseph River the past week, pushing the fall run to 5,956 steelhead, 384 coho, 211 king salmon and 4 browns as of Oct. 9.
The DNR’s underwater cameras at the South Bend Dam also observed 18 walleyes moving upstream since June.
Lake Michigan biologist Brian Breidert said he expects more coho and kings to move into the river in the coming days.
Fishing has been fair, although Dick Parker of Central Park Bait in Mishawaka said low water and the lack of rain have hampered the action. Cooler weather and rain is in next week’s forecast which should help the fishing and draw more fish into Indiana.
The St. Joe Valley Bassmasters will host their annual benefit tournament on the St. Joseph River at Maggies Landing Oct. 20.
Entry fee is $70 per team (includes big bass pot) with tournament hours 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The club will pay cash to the top five places with a 30-boat field, with more places paid for every six teams added.
Although it’s a team event, anglers must tag their individual fish to comply with the slot limit that allows each angler only two fish over the 15-inch limit. No fish between 12 and 15 inches may be weighed in.
Proceeds will purchase rubber bumpers to be placed along the docks at Maggie’s Landing.
Ron Fabiszak (South Bend) and Ron Nelson (Berrien Springs) caught 15.31 pounds of smallmouth on Muskegon Lake to win $1,540 in the R&B Circuit Classic recently.
The winners caught all but one fish on a white Strike King Sexy Dawg. Their biggest fish of the day, a 3.98-pound smallie, fell victim to a C Flash squarebill crankbait (bluegill color).
Mitch Bair (Columbia City) and Scott Sizemore (Albion) ran to White Lake and caught 15.28 pounds for second place ($823). They fished a Strike King Swim Jig in 8-10 feet of water. Trevor Paulus (Osceola) and Brad Sterling (Bremen) were third ($658) with 14.69 pounds caught from Muskegon Lake on green pumpkin Berkley Powerbait worms rigged on 3/16-ounce shaky heads.
Steve Januchowski (Michigan City) caught a 4.58-pound bass on Senko to win the Money Mouth Baits big bass prize ($270).
Contact Goshen News outdoor writer Louie Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org.