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Deep Data Dive: Stellar Walleye Numbers & Size Statistics on New York Waters

Deep Data Dive: Stellar Walleye Numbers & Size Statistics on New York Waters

I recently penned an In-Fisherman story titled “New York: Home of the Next World Record Walleye” that chronicled a 2020 18-pound-plus state-record walleye catch on the St. Lawrence River and included an interview with one of the area’s veteran fishing guides, Capt. Frank Campbell.

Everything I learned during the process only piqued my interest. I love walleye fishing and hope one day to catch a new personal best over 31 inches. From what I’ve learned, sounds like early spring or late fall on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, or Thousand Lakes region, might be my best shot.

jim edlund walleye
The author with one of his many walleyes over a multi-decade span of targeting the species.

So, continuing with the topic of walleyes and the Empire State, I contacted NYSDEC, and their media relations agent, Lori Severino, obliged my inquiry with fisheries data supporting the notion going ‘round that New York may be the next go-to destination for serious anglers—both for numbers—typically larger-than-average size fish, as well as a shot at fish between 10 and 20 pounds. I received Fisheries Assessments for the Eastern Basin of Lake Ontario, the Thousand Island region, and the St. Lawrence River/lake.

For the sake of this story, we’re going to focus on the St. Lawrence River, where angler Brian Hartman caught an 18-pound, 2-ounce walleye on May 6, 2020.

A Forage Buffet for Growing Walleye Populations

In the last story I wrote on NY walleyes, Capt. Frank Campbell explained the scenario on Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River/lake, and Thousand Islands region has set up perfectly for growing very healthy and potentially trophy-size walleyes.

Why? Both research data and angler reports point to this trifecta of New York waters being a veritable forage buffet for fish—and one that provides walleyes with ample food 12 months out of the calendar year.

The menu includes smelt, alewives, emerald shiners, juvenile perch, lots of young-of-the-year gamefish, and bottom substrate littered with the invasive round goby.

For the very same reason bass anglers have been singing the praises of both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River/lake for years—gobies are providing the protein to grow not only smallmouth bass of beastly, unrivaled proportions—but walleyes are eating a lot more of the invasive, bottom-dwelling species than most anglers might assume.

A little history: The invasive round goby (Neogobius melanostomus) began its expansion into the St. Lawrence River in 2000 and became well established by 2005. Diet data is not collected during TIWWA or LSLWWA as often walleye stomachs are empty, likely due to regurgitation when netted. Although the agencies do not have the hard data to correlate walleye growth and abundance given the presence of round gobies, anecdotally goby-patterned soft plastics and jigs have become extremely popular with anglers targeting walleyes, besides smallmouth bass and yellow perch in the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario.

Case in point, numerous competitors at the recent end-of-August B.A.S.S. Elite tournament on the St. Lawrence weighed over 100 pounds of smallmouth bass, the majority caught on drop-shots and/or goby-imitating baits. Yes, Ontario and St. Lawrence River smallies are super tall, wide and fat—and according to recent B.A.S.S. Elite-winning tournament angler, Patrick Walters, have “mouths that look like Gatorade bottles…their bodies have actually adapted to eating these critters.” Similarly, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence, and Thousand Islands walleyes are super girthy and sag-bellied and tip weights that sometimes seem outrageous for their respective lengths.

St. Lawrence: In-A-Nutshell

The St. Lawrence River is a large body of water with many different habitat types that offer anglers of all skill levels a myriad of fishing opportunities. While it can be a challenging place to fish, the results can be extremely rewarding. Public access is exceptional along the entire stretch of the river and allows anglers to access the river essentially year ‘round. Ice fishing is often available in sheltered waters which affords anglers the opportunity to target walleye until the season closes March 15. It is then closed during the walleye spawn but re-opens the first Saturday of May, drawing in anglers from afar to tempt giant post-spawn fish.

Ultimately, the sheer size of these three water bodies and abundant food sources allow walleyes to grow quickly and to large and old ages.


The Cold, Hard Facts: Growing Walleyes on the St. Lawrence River

NYSDEC conducts two annual sampling events on the St. Lawrence River (SLR), the Thousand Islands Warm-Water Assessment (TIWWA), and the Lake St. Lawrence Warm-Water Assessment (LSLWWA).

Each survey uses gillnets set overnight at 32 standard locations. TIWWA began in 1977 and is conducted at the end of July each year and is confirmed to the New York waters of the St. Lawrence River. LSLWWA began in 1986 and occurs in mid-September with 16 sites in New York waters and 16 sites in Ontario, Canada waters. Annual reports are produced each year and are included in the Lake Ontario Units Annual Report.

Figures 1 and 2 below depict the average catch per unit effort (CUE) in fish per net-night, with 95 percent confidence intervals a three-year moving average. Note the difference in scale between the two graphs. More walleyes are typically caught in LSLWWWA and TIWWA, yet the catch is typically dominated by smaller fish and younger ages.

ny fishing data 1 & 2
Figures 1 and 2

Length frequency distributions for both surveys in sample year 2021 and 2022 are found in Figure 3 and 4. A total of 32 and 24 walleyes were collected during TIWWA in 2021 and 2022 respectively, ranging from 9-28 inches weighing up to 9.6 pounds. A total of 62 and 60 walleyes were collected during LSLWWA in 2021 and 2022 respectively, ranging from 6-29 inches weighing up to 10 pounds.

ny walleye data 3 & 4
Figures 3 and 4

Low sample size in TIWWA does not allow us to determine year class strength (Figure 5). Sample size is slightly better in LSLWWA (Figure 6) and we can sometimes infer that a strong year class may be present, yet catches often decrease past age-3 walleyes.

Ny walleye data 4 & 5
Figures 4 and 5

Figures 7 and 8 represent length-at-age plots for walleyes collected in TIWWA and LSLWWA 2012-2022 with 95% confidence intervals. Age determination structures were switched from 2012-2022 with 95% confidence intervals. Age determination structures were switched from scales to ololiths in 2020 (LSLWWA) and 2021 (TIWWA). Otoliths allow us to better determine ages of walleyes especially at older ages. Age determinations prior to 2020 many have underestimated ages of older fish because scales were used. Walleye reach the legal harvestable length of 18 inches between age-3 and age-4 in the SLR.

ny walleye data 7 & 8
Figures 7 and 8

St. Lawrence Walleyes Today: A Top Guide’s Perspective

So why are St. Lawrence, Ontario, and Thousand Islands walleyes getting so big?

“The answer’s simple,” said Alexandria Bay, NY-based, Seaway Charters Captain, Matt Heath. “Round gobies. They’re a huge food source for walleyes besides our giant, world-class smallmouth bass. The bottom of the St. Lawrence River is basically carpeted with them so walleyes don't have to swim very far to scoop ‘em off the bottom.

“While May and October/November are great months to target monster walleyes, I personally like the period between mid-July best,” he said.

In terms of when to target ‘em, Heath said that with river walleyes you really need to get out early morning or evening.

“The St. Lawrence water is gin clear with 25 to 30 feet of visibility. So, a lot of my charters depart early to fish walleyes for a couple hours and then we switch over to smallmouth fishing. That’s a schedule that most of my customers prefer.”

capt matt heath ny walleye
A fine example of the kind of walleyes Capt. Matt Heath puts eager anglers on.

Regarding tactics, he is primarily a troller. After all, his job is to put people on fish—and help customers keep some fish for the table.

“Fishing the river, you have to cover a lot of water,” he said. “So I like trolling deep-diving stick baits with snap weights to get down deep. We’re fishing between 35 and 45 feet on average. And keep in mind that it’s not like trolling the large open basins on Lake Ontario. The St. Lawrence River’s bottom has some really drastic changes. You might run 3 or 4 lines on each side of the boat trolling the lake, but on the river, we’re limited to one or two lines a side.”

However, Heath will jig when the time is right. “You can get ‘em on bucktail hair jigs tipped with a half ‘crawler; that’s what a lot of ol’ river rats do—and some guys like fishing jigging spoons,” he added.

The third of his three major walleye techniques is running worm harnesses on bottom-bouncers with a “custom twist” that he wasn’t at liberty to share. From the way Heath explained, when the time is right it puts a lot of fish in the boat—and some big ones, too.

General Walleye Location

Left to his druthers, Heath sticks to the frequent and varied underwater river structure in the heart of the Thousand Islands region of the river—his favorite time being July through October.

“A lot of anglers come up starting that first Saturday in May when the walleye season opens, but I really think mid-summer through ice-up is the best time to walleye fish. But, if you come up in the spring, you want to be far down river from where I’m located or on Lake Ontario itself.”

Giant Walleye Commentary

“Seems like the envelope is getting pushed every year. Statistically, I really think the next world-record walleye is definitely swimming out in Lake Ontario—or the river. There aren’t tons of 15-pound or better fish, but there a good number,” he said. “I don’t pull a 10-pounder or better every trip I book but we do catch 8- to 10-pounders on a daily basis. We also get 11s and 12s. Over 12s are less frequent but we do catch ‘em. Of course, there’s always some kid who catches a 15-over on a Snoopy rod with a Mr. Twister off his grandparents’ floating dock. You’ve gotta love that. That’s what got me hooked on this whole fishing thing. I caught my first muskie fishing sunfish with my dad.”

Parting Words

What does all of this mean to us as walleye anglers?

Compare to a lot of classic waters throughout the greater Walleye Belt, the trifecta of big NY walleye waters—the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, and Thousand Islands region—are not only up and coming in terms of producing both numbers and old, large trophy fish—they are producing them right now.

Nothing against Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, Lake Erie, various rivers, and your other highly-esteemed walleye waters in the upper Midwest, but there’s something going on in New York that would behoove any walleye angler to make the trip.

And from the folks we’ve talked to, you cannot only catch numbers for the table, but you also have a very good shot at 28- to 30-inch fish—and really, really big walleyes, too, that absolutely trump those lengths—if you fish opportune times during the early- and late-season, especially during low-light periods.

Could Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River/lake, or Thousand Islands region produce a 20-pound walleye?

It’s looking that way—and I don’t know about you, but I’d like to throw our hat into the ring. Yep, you’ll find me out east for at least a few days this November—even despite a 35-year-old Minnesota deer hunting camp tradition.

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