The signature photos of spring river fishing in this corner of the state always feature shoulder-to-shoulder anglers in an irregular picket line, followed by shots of fishermen holding huge spawning run walleyes, or coolers stuffed with white bass.
Those two species leave Lake Erie and surge up the rivers en masse, and grab all of the attention. For anglers without access to a boat big enough to handle the lake’s erratic moods, the spring river runs present their only shot at putting walleye in the skillet, or hosting a family fish fry with a mess of white bass.
But our primary Lake Erie tributaries — the Maumee, Sandusky, and Portage rivers — and many of the other smaller threads of water that feed the big lake, play host to many different species each spring and early summer, while others make the river their year-round home. Everything from the seemingly exotic to the mundane crowds its way into those streams, but rarely draws much fanfare.
The longnose gar is a very odd-looking specimen, and with its needle-like snout and suit-of-armor jacket of scales, it looks more like a dinosaur that missed the extinction than a regular inhabitant of our rivers. It has a brown or olive-colored back with a white underside, and averages two or three feet in length, and weighs two to seven pounds.
This gar is aggressive and has a mouth filled with sharp teeth. Most anglers wading the rivers in the spring will see a gar flash past, and wonder just what that was. On rare occurrences, longnose gar can be seen in shallow-water clusters during their spawning ritual.
One of the first fish to leave Lake Erie and run up the rivers in spring are the northern pike. Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor in the Division of Wildlife’s Findlay office, said that although fewer in number that the walleyes and white bass, pike lead the charge.
“They arrive really early, sometimes when there is still ice on the river, and once the ice comes off they’ll spawn and then head back to the lake,” he said. “They look for areas of vegetation that their eggs will adhere to, and lay their eggs when the water is barely above freezing.”
The invasive white perch also make a spring river run, and this year they have showed up in the Sandusky River in significant numbers, and at about the same time as the native white bass.
Wilkerson said the rivers will see both migrant shad from Lake Erie and resident shad, and these fish are occasionally snagged by the legion of walleye and white bass anglers in the rivers. Shad drop their eggs in any area where they find adequate water flow, he said.
Spring river fishermen will also report seeing very large fish moving through shallow water in the rivers, and these could be common carp, since a resident population mixes with some lake-run fish at this time. Wilkerson said that sometimes these carp will push into the smaller tributaries as part of their early season movements.
White suckers are also spawning in the rivers each spring, while some of the redhorse suckers, and the bigmouth buffalo suckers, will move up the rivers, but not necessarily for spawning.
These rivers also hold resident populations of bluegills and largemouth and smallmouth bass, but these fish differ from the walleyes and white bass and many of the over river species in that they are nest spawners. Wilkerson said there is likely some movement of Lake Erie bass and bluegills into the rivers in the spring, but most of these fish are residents. The crappies caught in the rivers are residents as well, since they do not tend to migrate much, Wilkerson said.
There rivers will host a rare appearance by a lake sturgeon, a steelhead, or a Chinook salmon, but the latter species tends to show up in the fall.
Wilkerson said his office gets more calls on what anglers are fairly certain is an invasive species, but turns out to be the native bowfin.
“It’s an odd-looking fish, so when people catch one, they’re pretty sure it’s a snakehead or some other invasive,” Wilkerson said.
The bowfin has a long dorsal fin running half the length of its body and a rounded tail fin. Nothing else native to Ohio resembles this fish, which is an aggressive feeder armed with sharp teeth. Bowfins are fairly common in the Sandusky Bay and East Harbor areas, but they also are present in the rivers, Wilkerson said.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
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