ST. MARYS — Don Sawmiller cannot remember a spring when the fishing has been better at Grand Lake St. Marys.
“It was phenomenal,” the owner of Grand Lake Bait and Tackle said.
Those are words that outdoor enthusiasts and businesses around the lake have been waiting to hear for several years. The problems associated with algae blooms had all but killed recreational fishing, earning the body of water the dubious nickname of "Green Lake St. Marys."
The Ohio Division of Natural Resources is heralding the improved fishing as a sign that the water levels are clearing and the lake is becoming healthier.
“The great fishing reports we are receiving from anglers this year are an encouraging sign that our efforts are making a positive impact,” said ODNR Director James Zehringer, who grew up around the lake near Celina. “ODNR and the State of Ohio have committed a great number of resources to improving the water quality.”
Built in 1845, Grand Lake is the largest inland lake in Ohio and once was the largest man-made lake in the world. Its 13,500 acres of water and 52 miles of shoreline stretch from St. Marys to Celina.
Sawmiller hopes the ODNR is correct about the water quality, although he points out that the improved fishing also may have something to do with less pressure being put on the lake by fishermen the last three years.
Whatever the case, no one is debating the fact that the fish are bigger, and ODNR and the Ohio Department of Health say they are also safe to eat.
Recent fishing tournaments for largemouth bass and catfish, in particular, have ended with record catches in sizes and numbers of fish. Many anglers also have reported excellent catches of crappie along with bluegill and some walleye.
“People have been catching catfish regularly from 2 to 20 pounds and nice size crappies from 10 to 11 inches,” Sawmiller said. “Walleye fishermen trolling have been catching three- to four-pounders.”
Dan Manning, from the Outdoorsman in St. Marys, agreed.
“I’ve been in business 23 years, and it’s the best I’ve seen. Fishing is generally the best it’s been in a long time,” said Manning.
There are no restrictions for eating fish from Grand Lake St. Marys based on elevated levels of algal toxins in the lake.
Largemouth bass are appropriate for eating up to two meals a week, and all other fish can be consumed once a week. These recommendations are based on testing and guidelines developed by the Ohio Department of Health, in cooperation with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and ODNR.
Sawmiller said the summer heat will slow down fishing somewhat, but still looks for good catches to be made. He’s looking forward to seeing if perch fishing takes off this autumn.
“That’s when we should get some idea of how well the stocking program worked,” Sawmiller noted.
It is hoped that the yellow perch stocked by the ODNR two years ago will be large enough for eating. Earlier this month, ODNR stocked an additional 100,000 yellow perch fingerlings. Those fingerlings were around 2 inches when stocked and could take up to three years to be large enough to eat.
When the perch do grow to size, there will be an added benefit since perch could help thin out rough fish, such as carp, according to the ODNR. Grand Lake currently has an imbalance in the number of carp that can be found in the lake compared to the number of other species of fish. That's a problem because carp add to the unwanted phosphorus, or Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), in the lake, the ODNR said. The fish feed off the sediment at the bottom of the lake, and when they die, their bodies leave behind more of the chemical than was present before.
As is, the ODNR has been receiving plenty of help from fishermen in getting rid of carp.
The last three years the “Get the Carp Outta Here” fishing derby has been sponsored by The Lake Improvement Association and the Auglaize and Mercer Counties Convention and Visitors Bureau.
This year, 15,541 pounds of carp — or 7 ½ tons of fish — were removed from the lake in two days of fishing. Last year saw 12,831 pounds of carp were removed and initial year of the tournament saw 8,142 pounds of carp fished out.
To add a little excitement to the derby, organizers applied orange tags to 25 carp. An individual catching one of those carp before July 4 will be awarded $100. Only one of the carp were caught during the derby.