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Area anglers big on smaller fish

Warm spring weather has pushed most fishing seasons earlier by two to three weeks, and the shoreline bite has been early and outstanding.

Bass anglers enjoy the catch-and-release revelry, but those in pursuit of panfish have seen spectacular sizes and nice numbers on many warm-weather outings.

Olivia Thornton, 10, of Lancaster caught a perch from shore at Seneca Lake that would be the envy of any entrant in the Southtowns Walleye Association Perch Tourney.

Olivia, on an outing with her friend Abigal O'Hara and her step-dad John Janocsko of Cheektowaga, joined in the fishing fun from shore at Sampson State Park. "We could see northern pike and lake trout moving along shore and also schools of perch," Janocsko said. He set up perch casting rigs for both girls and in minutes they caught a perch.

"It was Mother's Day and we had to get home, but I wanted to have you see this 'elephant perch'," he said of Olivia's catch. The fish was officially entered in the NYS Angler Achievement Award program as a 15-inch, 2.5-pound yellow perch.

Since the Southdowns Tourney on May 19, boaters from Buffalo to well west of Sturgeon Point have been digging deep for perch schooling in New York State and Canadian waters.

Activity off Dunkirk Harbor has been mainly a nice start-up to the walleye season, but boaters steaming out to deeper waters east of Cattaraugus Creek have had a super season since shore ice melted in March.

Early spawning cycles and abundant baitfish schools moving off the shallows have given deep-water anglers perch catch counts and super sizes akin or superior to the heydays of the 1950s to '80s.

Spring spawning cycles have changed; perch tend to spawn in much deeper Lake Erie waters now. But anglers have adjusted to the changes and now get in on a run of jumbo/elephant perch catching that peaks in the spring and fall seasons but often holds through the summer months.

The launch cleanup and dock setup at Sturgeon Point Marina took time after sand buildup during a winter of open, ice-free waters, noted Pat Conrad, assistant manager at the marina. As always, catch reports at Sturgeon vary, but the better catches have come from the very same deep waters off the point that ice anglers seek during the hard-water season.

Right now, 59 feet off the Evans-Angola Bar has been the most-mentioned number. Every fish-worthy lake has gatherings of boats over schooling fish, but Lake Erie's perch packs seem to be bigger and tighter. Put three anchored boats together off Pinehurst, Sturgeon, Point Breeze, Evangola State Park or Cattaraugus Creek and 15 minutes later there are a dozen plus boats facing the prevailing breeze.

On most lakes, the few boats at the center of the flotilla catch fish. On Erie, the perch bite could take in the entire area or move off to a spot boaters are not covering.

Most live baits will catch Erie perch when the bite is right, but for consistent catches the emerald shiner shines.

The Chautauqua Lake perch bite varies from Erie's fishery. Waters have cleared, but Chautauqua ringbacks continue to hold along the shoreline shallows from Mayville to Jamestown.

The crappie (calico bass) bite has tailed off in recent years, but for pure panfish production perch prospects prevail. Shore casters and boaters for decades had seen mostly runt ringbacks during summer and winter outings.

Now, for the past four to five years, perch sizes have increased and catch numbers remain high. True, these fish rarely reach jumbo sizes of Erie perch, but the chances of a 50-fish limit of panfish at and over the 8-inch mark at Chautauqua are better now than elder anglers have seen in a lifetime.

Along with bass and perch, the bluegill bite in western Finger Lakes waters has been notable. Honeoye Lake has a reputation for "bull 'gills," but ice anglers and shoreline boaters have discovered increased sizes in 'gills and sunfish at both Silver Lake and Conesus Lake this past year.

Silver Lake's south basin has been good for 'gills and has seen improved crappie presence. Conesus Lake's bigger 'gills and sunnies seem to vary from weed edges at the south and at the north basin each spring.

Honeoye Lake has seen increased numbers of smaller 'gills but continues to lead in catches with monsters measuring at and slightly over 10 inches. Launch site upgrades and a much expanded parking area at the state park on the southeast corner of the lake make this a must-fish destination for spring panfish boaters.

Walleye, bass, muskies, trout, salmon, and other big game fish put many an angler on area waters, but basic panfishing brings out the kid in all of us.