By John Hageman
Even though the attention of many sportsmen are now focused on hunting at the expense of time on the water, yellow perch are a species of fish that can be caught year-round on Lake Erie.
Whenever the weather cooperates, outstanding catches of perch can be made for the next several months close to shore and in protected embayments connected to the lake.
The explosion of spiny water fleas dominates feeding activities of perch during the late summer and early fall, often leading to consistently higher perch catch rates in October and later as the densities of the invasive zooplankton wane.
I had a chance to get out perch fishing with Lake Erie Charter Captain of the Year Don McGee (Oregon), Lake Erie Charter Boat Association President Paul Pacholski (Erie, Mich.), Captain Dave Whitt (Oak Harbor) and Bob Hineman (Columbus) on a mid-October Tuesday morning.
As we anchored in between the Toledo water intake and the Toledo lighthouse, the 1- to 2-foot waves from the southwest were quite tolerable. Gale-force northwest winds that blew two days prior to our trip muddied the nearshore waters and prevented fishing over the weekend.
Within a minute or two, I had the first fish of the trip, but it was only about 6 inches long and was quickly tossed back. Soon thereafter, we had a flurry of activity that lasted about 90 minutes before slowing.
During that feeding frenzy, most of the keepers were in the 8 ½- to 9 ½-inch range, my personal favorite size to fillet and eat.
I find that after they reach 10 inches, the pesky “rib barbs” that remain in the fillets of larger perch need to be “zippered” like walleye fillets routinely are to keep from poking the throats of those otherwise enjoying a perch fry.
After initially being pickier about only keeping fish over 8 inches, our standards began getting a little looser after the bite slowed down around 10 a.m. More fish in the 7 ½-inch to 7 ¾-inch range began to be kept by the rest of us despite the shaming and teasing of Captain Dave. It turned out that we should have started saving the 7 ¾-inch perch sooner.
I have admitted numerous times over the years that I would rather eat the fillets of a 7-inch perch than air. While perch over 8 inches are meatier, with my 4-inch Rapala knives sharpened to allow me to make a close shave to their skeleton, I am capable of carving suitable fillets from any perch over 7 inches.
After we were convinced that the fish were done biting and it was time to return to the marina, the clicker displayed a count of 130 for the five of us to split. We agreed that we threw back at least twice as many as we kept. It was the first substantial catch of perch that I got to partake in since about the same time last year with Captain McGee.
Perch can be found along the edge of rock piles near shore or next to vegetation where it occurs in the bays and harbors right up until freeze up.
Then, they continue to be caught by anglers all winter by fishing some of these same locations in marinas, harbors, and the edges of the shores and islands through the ice.
Around Put-in-Bay during the winter months, perch are clearly targeting larval mayflies over the mudflats in between South Bass and Rattlesnake islands.
The bugs are so fresh that some of them are still alive when regurgitated into the fish bucket or at least fresh enough to be able to bait onto the same hooks that are used for the shiners.
When the lake did not freeze, I have often gotten limits of perch in January and February by fishing from a small boat just off the cliffs outside the cove from Catawba Island State Park. Similar luck can be had near many Western Basin tributary mouths from Huron to the waters off of southeastern Michigan.
According to Travis Hartman, Ohio Division of Wildlife Lake Erie fisheries administrator, anglers do not take advantage of the fact that when the weather cooperates, perch are willing biters 12 months a year. Creel surveys reveal that the majority of targeted perch fishing still occurs from late July through early October.
Perch have long been thought to make seasonal movements from shallow to deep and then back to shallow water annually in response to water temperature, spawning season, and food resources that they are utilizing.
To help fill in the blanks even better about the details of their migration, the agency has initiated some acoustic tagging research that will help pinpoint perch locations over the course of the year. In an earlier article for Ohio Outdoor News this year, I provided some commercial fishing catch locations that were used last spring.
Reliably knowing where to find perch throughout the year may lead to more perch fishing in the fall through spring when they are believed to be close to shore and within reach of smaller boats that can be launched on a daily basis after the marinas pull their docks.