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For a good day, try Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake has a decades-long reputation as a premiere perch-producing spot all around the Northeast.

Boaters arrive from Western and Central New York as well as nearby states to get in on the numbers and sizes of yellow perch Seneca's deep and expansive shoreline shallow waters continuously provide.

Historically, Seneca Lake ranks highest for big perch catches. During the 1950s and '60s, Seneca was listed as the site seven, eight or nine times out of the top 10 entries for monthly catch reports in the Louis A. Wehle Fishing Contest that Genesee Brewery sponsored each fishing season.

As a youth I lived on the Lake Erie shoreline and fished that lake almost exclusively until I could become mobile and drive to other fishing holes. Once able to motor to new cites, I vowed to fish at least one new lake, river, stream, pond or ocean site not previously fished in years past.

The big draw to Seneca Lake came not for perch prospects but northern pike catches. In a brief Outdoor Life magazine column in 1966, Ted Janes reported on a trip with guide Bob Cass, a charter captain out of Geneva who specialized in pike trips with live bait under bobbers with colors that matched a color band on each fishing rod.

Cass' catch count seemed great and the close shoreline fishing along weed edges seemed ideal for my 14-foot MFG car-top boat and small Mercury motor.

An afternoon of casting spoons along the weeds just south of Kashong Point was the start of a love affair with Seneca that lasted more than two decades. After spectacular results with pike, chain pickerel and later those sweet-tasting Finger Lakes lake trout, I ventured into serious perch fishing local experts constantly touted as terrific.

It didn't take long to discover that a good catch of perch could be more difficult than a successful day with pike, bass, trout, or other panfish.

A brown jig and/or an oak-leaf grub were the leading lure selections for catching Seneca perch. But with the lure of Lake Erie's great walleye, bass and perch fishing and the Niagara River and Lake Ontario's trout and salmon abundance, Seneca Lake remained an interesting option, but actual outings dropped from the to-do list each year.

But good Seneca Lake reports for Fishing Line readers and continuous contact with area experts prompted an attempt this past week to revisit this fertile Finger Lake.

Tom "Tommy O" Owczarczak of West Seneca has gained a solid reputation as an individual and team competitor in area walleye contests over the years. But when I chatted with Tommy O, organizer of several northern Ontario Province caribou trips in years past, he would talk more about Finger Lakes perch fishing than successful walleye catches and hunt outings.

"As much as I like the walleye tournaments, I love this perch fishing," he said as we planned a trip to Seneca Lake. We decided on a day trip for Wednesday, a day forecast as sunny, mid 50s, with west winds under 10 mph.

We arrived at Roy's Marina as Larry Japp, Roy's son, opened the tackle shop where we could get fathead minnows and oak-leaf bugs, the two live baits anglers had been doing best with on perch the past two to three weeks.

The late Roy Japp became an outdoors legend in his day, hunting around the world, forming sporting clubs, founding a Finger Lakes chapter of Ducks Unlimited and being the most practical joker in North America, and a consummate source of information about fishing on Seneca Lake.

Son Larry and his wife Rozayln carry on that tradition, with good tackle selections and forthright reports on how the fish are and aren't biting.

Larry had an array of computer printouts of catches from days earlier, and it looked as though we would be filling buckets -- or at least bringing in a nice meal or two -- from the 18- to 22-foot ledge edges that had been so productive recently.

As we headed out from Roy's Marina, that predicted west wind came at us from the south-southeast. Three other boaters worked the same shoreline edges south of our setup.

Clearly, water clarity had drastically changed. "Since you were here last, the lake has become much more clear," Tom said as we looked down and saw weeds, sand and gravel washes, and bottom structures to depths of more than 40 feet in places.

Tom has had great success with light lines. "I started using 2-pound and 1-plus (1 1/2 -) pound Fireline about five or six years ago, and it has upped my odds considerably," he said as we began drifts over likely perch parts.

Seeing the clarity of it all, I quickly spooled on about a 100 feet of 2-pound test Berkley fluorocarbon and tied a 1/1 6th-ounce jig head with an oak-leaf affixed. It looked good going down and bumped weeds nicely over places where an odd perch or two showed on the sonar screen.

We shed heavy outer gear at mid-morning and stowed gloves and mittens after the first drift during more than eight hours on the water this beautiful day. But by late afternoon we had yet to confirm an actual fish bite. In a consoling tone, Tom began the old saying, "A good day on the water is better than [fill in your chosen annoying place/routine.]"

It was that. We talked with three or four other boaters who had connected with another three or four other boaters and found that anglers in one boat working off Highbanks on the opposite shore were the only north-end anglers with perch -- a total of two.

Of course, word had it that perchers out of Severn some 15 miles south of Roy's Marina had done fairly well on ringbacks that morning, adding yet another cliche to the day: You not only should have been here yesterday, you should have been fishing somewhere else.

Despite the catch count, Seneca Lake remains a promising perch destination. With the right gear and good guidance, an outing shared with good friends at Seneca could add to the enjoying of the coming fishing seasons. Give it a try.


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