After an extremely odd year that saw a combination of drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures influencing fishing in the Great Lakes (and elsewhere), many anglers in Western New York have been waiting for a certain fish species to arrive on the scene with a bit more consistency – the extremely popular yellow perch.
After a productive spring fishing season off New York’s large chunk of shoreline, anglers will be looking for a repeat performance in the fall. Finding the fleet of boats marking the perceived “best spot” is not a difficult task. However, there are a lot of “best spots” out there.
“The fall perch action is almost a month late due to the warm water,” says Bruce Cavage of Marilla, an avid percher. “The lack of emerald shiners could be a problem, too. I switched over to perch fishing last week (from walleye) and I had to use salted emeralds to get them to hit. I noticed that a lot of the perch I caught were coughing up small gobies, emeralds and freshwater shrimp. The best tip I can give is to be patient, stay close to the bottom and test a few spots out. Patience is needed because last year the best fall perch action on any given day did not start until the afternoon. I’m partial to the old spreader-type rig to emulate live minnows swimming up from the bottom.”
So what can you expect this fall when the perch action actually turns on full steam ahead? One thing will be that you won’t see as many boats. Cavage pointed out that only the diehard perch angler will be heading out at this point in the season. Some of the marinas are starting to shut down and hunting seasons have taken away many of the other perch chasers. Last November, Cavage hit the lake three times and every trip was fantastic.
“Yellow perch numbers were down considerably in 2015 from the previous year,” said Jason Robinson, Aquatic Biologist with DEC’s Lake Erie Unit. “However, it was still the eighth-highest harvest total in the 28 annual data series collected for the open lake sport fishing survey. We were coming off a record year for harvest, effort and catch rates in 2014, so the 87,000 perch caught last year were still decent. Last year’s catch rate was the fifth highest on record.”
Yellow perch fishing has been good to very good since 2012 in the Empire State. The 2016 forecast should be very similar to the 2015 angling season, with the best perch fishing taking place in spring and fall. With the mild winter, some perch addicts hit the waters from Sturgeon Point to Cattaraugus Creek early to take home plenty of these favored table fare – before any lake creel census was taking place.
“Population levels this year are similar to 2015,” says Robinson. “We are seeing good numbers of 2-year-old fish in the mix, but those fish won’t be part of the harvest yet. This is a recruitment-driven fishery. We haven’t seen a decent year class since 2014, but that was not record-setting. A large adult population of fish is still available to anglers.” The 2016 information will not be available until spring of 2017.
Fonzi’s Perch Program
Capt. Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Charters (716-998-8373) operates a brand new 2016 Ranger 621 Fisherman Series outfitted with a 250 Yamaha CFX Offshore. The coolest thing on the boat is the Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor with a GPS chip in the head serving as an iPilot. It’s like an electric anchor. Fonzi also uses a Lowrance HDS 12 Gen 3 unit, another amazing piece of technology. “We spend a ton of money on these electronics and most people won’t pay attention to what it’s telling them,” he said. “If we are not marking fish below us, there are
n’t any there. They’ve moved. We just need to find them again.”
Fonzi has been doing this a long time. He recently renewed his fourth U.S. Coast Guard license, so that translates into 15-plus years. His fishing consistency combined with his ethical behavior and knowledge of Western New York’s Great Lakes waters earned him a spot on the local Cabela’s Pro Staff just this year, something he is proud of.
His basic equipment for perch is the medium-light Cabela’s Fish Eagle rods 6 foot, 6 inches or 7 foot in length. The spinning reel is a Shimano Stradic or Symetre. For his simple perch rig, he sets it up the same as his drop shot rig for bass on the lake. He uses No. 1 Gamakatsu jig hooks tied directly to the line (without a leader), tying up two hooks. The line is either an 8- or 10-pound test braid like Fire Line or 10-pound test Nanofil line. This gives him a more positive feel for the perch overall. His weight at the bottom of that line varies with the conditions. “I’ll only use enough weight to get me to the bottom based on what those conditions are,” says Fonzi. “I will look at the current and the waves that we will be encountering on the water to figure how much weight we will need. It might be a quarter ounce, but I may need as much as an ounce and a half. If I am casting, I might go with a slightly lighter weight. It’s might be a trial and error process until I figure out what works on any given day.
“If I am searching for fish or if fish are scattered, I’ll set up a three-way rig with a 4- to 6-inch dropper to find bottom and a leader of just 18 to 24 inches behind the swivel. This is one way I like to fish in the summer when we’re fishing smaller pods of perch. Once we’re set up, I will use my electric trolling motor set at .6 mph to locate the pods. Once they are located, we will mark the spot and use the other tactics to take yellow perch until they move or shut down and start the process all over again.”
There is a bit of a controversy that is starting to brew on a couple different levels. Pulling fish up from the bottom in 50-70 feet of water doesn’t really allow for catch and release for smaller fish. Air bladders are exposed at that point. While most of the fish are normally 10 to 14 inches in length, there are always a few of the fish under that mark. Those shorties should go into the cooler, too. It’s a waste if they can’t survive – and you are killing more fish than you need to. There are also those that want to see the limit reduced from 50 to 30 fish per day – the same number as other states to the west on Lake Erie. Others want to make it mandatory to keep the first 50 perch you catch.
At the Greater Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Expo in January (set for Jan. 20-22, 2017 at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls), the perch seminars were among the most popular educational classes. Combine that with recent success rates (2014 was the best catch rate ever on Lake Erie according the NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation) and the improvements in technology, we have to realize now that perch are not an infinite resource. We need to manage them accordingly. Let’s keep the experience a positive one and pass along a tradition to the next generation of fishermen and women.