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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: Sudden decline in perch begs for an answer

Lake Erie yellow perch anglers have had golden times rounding up ringbacks in warm weather for more than a decade.

All through last winter, the perch fishery remained open when lake temperatures remained above the 38-degree turnover threshold that forms ice surfaces. And perch schools seemed abundant through the fall, during much of the winter and early in the spring.

Then, something happened. Extreme temperature swings from warm or hot to cool or bitter chills since the start of the year have set many fishing and wildlife species off feeding patterns, as well as spawning and reproduction cycles, according to animal tracking. Early and late spawning has been the most noticeable effect, but feeding locations for predator and prey fish have also shifted, leaving some wondering if there’s a bait shortage, a drop in game-fish numbers or another fishery concern at work.

The boon in Lake Erie’s perch numbers and sizes since the start of the century saw a peak in 2014, according to numbers that Don Einhouse, Lake Erie Fisheries research unit leader, presented during a recent Department of Environmental Conservation Angler Outreach program at Woodlawn Beach State Park.

Einhouse gave perch presence a bad-news, good-news delivery. He noted that despite the decline in perch harvests after the 2014 peak, a possible reduction in daily harvest numbers is now off the table. He explained that anglers fishing New York State’s eastern basin had been taking numbers of perch that approached – and, by 2016, might possibly exceed – lakewide survey numbers, as shown in the annual Total Allowable Catch numbers for eastern Lake Erie. The harvest may therefore soon exceed the number of perch necessary to sustain the lake’s population.

Since anglers no longer take more perch from New York waters than the lake can support, though, Einhouse sees no need to enter a discussion on perch bag limits among other proposals for coming fishing regulations changes.

The retention of the 50-fish daily perch limit met with the approval of Ted Malota, Herb Schultz and many other regulars who chase perch schools around Erie’s eastern waters.

“The problem is, what was once ‘schools’ of perch out there is now ‘pods’ of perch,” said Capt. Sam Schrecengost.

Einhouse pointed out that hooking mortality is high in a fishery where perch are brought up from depths of 50 feet or more. Capt. Tom Marx noted others should consider keeping each fish, regardless of its size.

Marx’s remarks met with considerable approval from many of the more than 50 at the meeting. Einhouse also considers the keep-all-caught regulation option a good one.

It might be difficult to enforce, though.

As anglers head out to popular perch-catching places on Lake Erie this holiday weekend, prospects for a full bucket of these popular panfish aren’t clear. We took a reconnaissance run off Cattaraugus Creek on Thursday morning, beginning with a sonar survey. We stared at the screen over 30-foot depths directly off the Catt at about 6:30 a.m. and then headed northwest, toward the 65-foot depths where walleye contest trollers had spotted heavy perch schools a week or two earlier.

We went west, halfway to Dunkirk Harbor and out to 75-foot depths, and then turned east and cruised with the waves to Point Breeze. We circled in front of Evangola State Park and headed back to the mouth of Cattaraugus Creek. During that nearly four-hour run, neither a school of bait nor yellow perch appeared on the sonar screen. Sad. We didn’t put a line in the water, and on the way home returned our bucket of golden shiners to Rick at Miller’s Bait Store in Irving.

This lack of perch resembles a run we took a quarter century ago out of Sturgeon Point. We went in Teddy Depczynski’s totally refurbished Penn Yan, equipped with a top-of-the-line paper graph that recorded every fish blip under the boat. One comfy Sunday afternoon in 1991, we cruised from Sturgeon to the Catt, then eastward to well past Eighteen Mile Creek, burning blips into paper that showed two small perch pods where boaters had pulled thousands of ringbacks in the 1970s and ‘80s.

But last Thursday’s paucity should not be taken as a perch fishery history repeating itself. Perch have scattered. Spawning-sized mamas are out there. Boaters are taking a few respectable ringbacks that are wandering with walleyes. For example, while working a rock pile for walleye near the International Line with Capt. Steve Reynolds during the BassEye, we pulled a half-dozen plucky perch. Walleye trollers from Buffalo to Barcelona report catching big perch while looking for ‘eyes.

Perch schools are out, possibly for the summer. Bass and walleye are the top targets anglers shoot for on Lake Erie right now. But a verdict on perch presence is still pending.