When the perch are biting, every boater on Lake Erie could qualify as an expert.
Schools of sizeable yellow perch often form in tight patches and pods near bottom at depths either side of 50 feet each spring and fall. An abundant school might form 4-5 feet off bottom, with perch hitting baits before they can touch bottom.
Gone are the days of casting from shore at public-access sites. Before the arrival in the 1980s of zebra and quagga mussels, critters that filter water and increase clarity, perch would move into shoreline shallows to spawn each spring season, offering anglers an opportunity to fill a pail, bucket or cooler with good-tasting ringbacks.
Now, those nice numbers, and often spectacular sizes, of perch can be found in deeper waters from the Pinehurst/Hamburg area westward to well past Cattaraugus Creek.
Weather conditions (mainly winds), spawning cycles, bait-school masses and other factors affect catch rates, but the perch presence in the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie is remarkable.
“We saw the highest catch rate of yellow perch in 2014 since we began surveying in 1988,” said Don Einhouse, unit leader at the Department of Environmental Conservation Lake Erie Unit in Dunkirk.
Perch schools sometimes appear along shoreline shallows on both the New York and Ontario sides of Lake Erie, but those anchored flotilla of fisher folk from Buffalo to Barcelona Harbor and Long Point generally head to deeper waters and find bait schools or bottom structures that often rise or drop a foot or two, affording fish a holding place to rest and feed in great numbers.
While the lake continues to lay out all of this largesse, some, even successful anglers who saw peak perch numbers from the 1950s to the 1980s crash in the 1990s, question a sustained fishery with current catch-and-keep rates.
Both Ohio and Pennsylvania set a daily creel limit per angler for each fishing year at the start of the season. In general, both states have imposed a 30-fish limit for yellow perch. Michigan has retained the 50-fish limit that has been imposed in New York State for decades.
Curiously, the SONS of Lake Erie group in Erie, Pa., has as its club logo a photo of a yellow perch. The acronym SONS stands for “Save Our Native Species”.
The club was formed to save declining perch numbers. Volunteers have striven for more than 30 years on hatchery, habitat and fishing-access projects for Lake Erie and its tributaries.
Ed Kissell, SONS vice president, noted that Pennsylvania’s perch catch limit is established based on lake-wide quotas set each year.
“We know by April 15 what the limit will be each year,” Kissell said, which will be a 30-fish limit for 2015.
Compared with other fishing stakeholders around Lake Erie, New York State has a relatively low catch rate, well below Ohio and Ontario. As with the walleye creel-limit change, a reduction of one fish, from six to five, a few years back, a change in perch limit count would be greeted with a mix of approval and rejection.
When it comes to outdoors reporting, Mike Levy often said that the two topics that receive the least acceptance from outdoors folk are proposals for a license fee increase and for a fishing bag-limit reduction.
Erie’s perch-fishing regulars familiar with that cycle of rising and falling have voiced some concern that this current peak in perch production might lead to a decline similar to the one seen before the start of this century.
Part of the concern is that today most perch are caught at depths at and beyond 50 feet. Fish that are released often suffer a fish-version of the bends, what humans suffer when ascending to the surface too quickly after a dive.
Many are the times that a boater can be identified as being over a school of smaller perch and other species, a flock of sea gulls akin to a scene from “The Birds” has gathered just off that boat’s transom. Gulls retrieve fish unable to recover and return to near bottom where they were caught.
No regulations proposals are in place, but DEC officials are interested in knowing anglers’ take on perch and other fish-species management. One opportunity would be to attend the fourth annual NYSDEC Angler Outreach Event at Woodlawn Beach State Park from 6:30 to 9 p.m. June 2.
Experts will make presentations on Lake Erie and upper Niagara River fishery topics and the meeting will conclude with questions and open discussion of future management strategies, regulations and other issues.
For more details, check with Einhouse at the Lake Erie Unit at 366-0228.