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Will Elliott’s outdoors: Perch decline brings call for limiting keepers

This mild winter has given Lake Erie perch anglers a boating fishery usually enjoyed through the ice. Outcomes have been mixed, with good and poor perch catches seen throughout the winter.

Both catches and conditions vary with every day on the water, and veteran perch pursuers come in with different reads each time on the water.

“There should have been more boats out there,” Rick Miller at Miller’s Bait Tackle in Irving said of a spectacular Saturday bite last weekend. Miller added, “Most guys don’t have their boats ready for this early run.”

The run has alternated between searing hot, so-so and stone cold each day out. Erie boaters know the bite, unlike most inland lakes, remains a deep-water activity. Since the increased clarity created with the introduction of zebra and quagga mussels in the 1980s, Lake Erie perch schools have remained in deeper waters during the peak spawning seasons that previously brought yellow perch into Erie’s shallows to lay eggs and feed closer to shore.

What today’s perch angler is experiencing might be similar but is far from exactly the same reduction in perch numbers anglers saw in the late 1980s and 1990s. The clear-water clear-out of perch back then was perhaps an adjustment to the changing water conditions.

Clear or stained, Lake Erie waters are the most productive per square mile of the five Great Lakes. The shallowest of the Great Lakes with a mean depth of 62 feet, Erie flushes every drop of its water every 2.6 years, which provides fish with abundant spawning shallows and fresh water for those aquatic inhabitants.

Before the demise, if not extinction, of blue pike schools at the middle of the Twentieth Century, Lake Erie could be counted on for an abundant supply of yellow perch for commercial and private consumption. Once blue pike fillets could no longer be produced, yellow perch abundance was such that gill netters from the head of the Niagara River in Buffalo to the mouth of the Detroit River in Michigan supplied fish markets across North America.

Snowbirders in the 1950s came back to Western New York and remarked that at seafood stores in Tampa, Clearwater, Miami, Daytona and elsewhere in Florida they regularly saw a tray of fillets marked Lake Erie Perch in those stores.

Before the clarity shift, Erie perch spawned in the shallows each spring and boaters gradually chased schools from the shallows in April and May to deeper waters, often called the “chugging grounds,” where trollers moved out to deeper waters and trolled walleye in July an August.

All that changed with the revival of perch presence at the turn of the century. Boaters could still find perch in the shallows of the upper Niagara River and around harbor shallows, but head to Erie’s deeper waters from Hamburg to Barcelona Harbor and the fishery not only provided abundant but also sizable perch catches taken out deeper at every port. The older old timers who fished for perch during the period between the end of World War II in 1945 and the perch crash of the late 1980s do not recall the number of bigger fish anglers have been catching in the past decade.

Granted, most perch measure less than 15 inches and many of the bigger mamas weigh in above 2 pounds while carrying huge sacs of roe/eggs. But the average angler has been pulling above-average weights and lengths of perch in recent years. Pure speculation has it that round gobies, an invasive species that holds near bottom, have contributed to the bulk buildup perch have enjoyed since gobies began thriving in deeper waters where perch tend to hold near bottom while feeding.

Sustained goby numbers and good schools of emerald shiners do not ensure a continued abundance of perch. Good sizes are still being caught but the count and the widespread presence have narrowed.

More than five years ago regulars such as taxidermist Bill Mansell of Lancaster cautioned about bringing up big numbers of small perch from depths of 50 feet or more only to see them float on the surface and become seagull substance.

With GPS waypoints, side-scanning sonar, underwater cameras, fine fluorocarbon leaders, and the best of hooks, lines, sinkers, rods and reels on board, perch anglers have to accept the fact that perch numbers are declining. Not as drastically and not as widespread, but boaters should pull anchor and make some moves when the biting perch school is a run of runts.

Additionally, keeping a limit of cleanable fish, rather than a 50-fish per angler total catch, might help sustain perch numbers.

Erie as yet to approach perch spawning temperatures and the dominant feeders from now until the male spurt seen in mid to late May will be females bloated with eggs. Area anglers would not like to see the limit reduced to 25 or 20 as seen in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The spring fishery for perch will continue to produce, but anglers will have to extend the search for perch and limit catches to usable numbers of food-providing fish.