In Praise of the Yellow Perch
The People’s Fish
The quintessential Wisconsin fish is the Yellow Perch (Perca flavenscens). Sure, the mighty Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is the Official Wisconsin State Fish, but the perch is the people’s fish. Anglers of all ages from toddlers to old geezers target perch all year long, often together. We have all seen a grandparent beside their wiggling grandchild along the Kangaroo Lake causeway on those warm summer days trying to entice a perch to bite. One of the qualities we love about perch is that they are eager feeders and not too particular about what they eat. They also will eat throughout the daylight hours. No need to get up before dawn or fish until midnight. This makes them the perfect target species for novice and casual anglers. Experienced and serious anglers often eschew the lowly perch as not being worthy of their efforts. I must admit that occasionally I have looked down my nose at the perch and those who target them claiming adamantly that “I’ll never become a perch fisherman until I’m too old to fish for anything else!” I’ve had to eat those words at times when the only fish around that are biting are perch. When I lived in the Fox Valley I often targeted perch, particularly on Lake Winnebago when I would spend many weekend mornings dangling lines perch fishing with pals Ed, Stanny and Walleye Wille. Often heading home with a bucket of perch.
Yellow perch are prized as table fare and nothing says Wisconsin more than the traditional Friday Night Fish Fry, particularly if the fish served is perch. Perch can be found on the menu of almost every Wisconsin eatery from the grandest supper club to the smallest local bar. Many of us, however, have noticed a change in those perch dinners the last several decades. First of all, they are a lot more expensive. A perch dinner is no longer a cheap night out. Secondly, the perch filets seem to be a lot smaller. This was pointed out to me recently by Baileys Harbor resident Georgia, describing the pieces of fish flesh on her plate at a local diner: “These perch must have been pretty tiny.” If they are “perch” all. Increasingly, restaurateurs have turned to “alternate” fish featuring ocean perch, cod and various other imported species. Most often this is clearly stated on the menu, but sometimes these pseudo-perch are pawned off as the real thing. Of course, the reason for all of this is the decline of the perch populations in Wisconsin. As most savvy Wisconsinites realize, almost none of the yellow perch served in restaurants was actually caught in Wisconsin. (Don’t tell the Flatlanders!) The vast majority of yellow perch served in the area comes from Lake Erie, mostly harvested by Canadian fisheries. Commercial perch fishing in Wisconsin now only takes place in Green Bay and is subject to strict quotas. The commercial fishing limit for yellow perch in Green Bay is just 100,000 pounds. That would provide enough perch for about a week of Wisconsin’s fish fries as a recent Door County Pulse article pointed out. Some of you may recall last summer when the Baileys Harbor Fish Company (aka the Hickey Brothers) caught some perch last Fall and offered them in a flash sale on their Facebook page. They sold out fast. There just are not as many perch in Green Bay and the yellow perch in Lake Michigan are almost non-existent. The days when hordes of perch anglers lined up along the piers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Sheboygan and other lake ports are long gone and will probably never return, at least not in my lifetime. Recent surveys by the Wisconsin DNR in Milwaukee Harbor have turned up virtually no yellow perch.
The causes of this precipitous decline in the perch population has been the focus of much frantic research by state and federal agencies and the topic of many heated discussions among anglers. Bring up the topic of perch at any Great Lakes boat landing, tackle shop or watering hole and you will get an earful of ideas on the demise of the perch. There is little doubt now that the main cause of the drop-off involves the degradation of habitat and the impact of invasive species, particularly the European mussels, starting with the zebra and now the quagga. The short explanation is that these filter feeding mussels have removed much of the zooplankton and phytoplankton from the waters of Lake Michigan, leaving little for the yellow perch fry to eat in their first months of life. The young perch die of starvation soon after hatching. The impact of the mussels has been greater on the relatively sterile waters of Lake Michigan while the more fertile waters of Green Bay have retained a viable perch population. Of course, there are other factors that affect perch populations including increased predation by walleyes, smallmouth bass, black cormorants and other predators. Anglers also have to take their part of the blame. Overfishing, in my opinion, had some negative impact. I well remember the halcyon days in the mid-80s when you could catch perch by the hundreds near Dyckesville and other locations in the lower bay. And people did. Back when the daily bag limit was fifty perch, many anglers would get their limit every day and then some illegally coming back multiple times in a day. I never understood why anybody needed fifty perch or for that matter wanted to clean that many of the little fish. I often caught over fifty perch in a day of fishing, but never kept more the twenty of the nicest ones. That was plenty.
Since then the daily limit has been reduced to 15 perch in much of Green Bay, only 5 in Lake Michigan, if you can find even that many. There is also a limited season. The season for yellow perch on the waters of Green Bay closes on March 15th and does not reopen until May 20th. Check the Wisconsin fishing regulations for specific harvest details. These restrictions have had the desired effect as the perch fishing has, by all reports and my personal experience, improved in recent years. So, if you want to have a genuine fresh Wisconsin perch dinner you will just have to go out there and catch them yourself.
That is just what I have been doing the last weeks. Due to the poor ice condition on the Bay, the whitefish action has been slowed as it has been impossible to get out into the deeper water where the most and largest whitefish forage. I have spent some time on Kangaroo as I have related in the space before. On the advice of local fishing guide, J.J. Malvitz, I made a few trips to the Sturgeon Bay area in search of enough yellow perch to provide my wife with her favorite fish dinner. What I discovered was that putting eater-sized perch on the ice takes patience, persistence and a little luck. With fewer fish and more anglers, there is a challenge to finding pods of active fish. It is not just a matter of drilling a hole, dropping down a waxie and drinking coffee. A least not for me. Heading out on the ice, I found six to ten inches of good ice, plenty to keep me on the correct side of the ice. After drilling some holes and getting no bites or seeing marks on my Zercom sonar for almost an hour, I moved. Using the Navionics navigation app on my iPhone, I located likely areas in about 15-20FOW. I tried to get away from the other groups of anglers to avoid the noise of drilling, snow machines and general mayhem. The ice was thin enough that I could use my hand auger limiting the noise as well. After two or three moves, I finally saw some fish on the sonar. Enticing them to bite now became the challenge. I was using a small (1/16 ounce) jigging spoon with a piece of minnow dangling from the hook. I also put down a live shiner minnow on a slip bobber about two to three feet above the bottom. I would move the jig upwards and allow it to wobble enticingly just above the fishlike flashes on the sonar screen. Then as the bright marks from the fish and my lure merged on the screen, I saw my rod tip dip. I pulled back, the rod exhibited a healthy bow as I eased a fat yellow and black sided perch onto the ice. It was a start. I repeated this process moving whenever the fish disappeared. If I found a nice school, the action could be fast and furious, getting hits as quickly as you could get my bait down to the fish. At other times, you had to entice a single fish to bite, often to no avail. And all the fish were not keepers. One day I put twenty fish on the ice, but only five were bucket worthy. The others went back down the hole to grow up a bit.
I did manage to catch enough fish to provide Pamela Ann (the wife) her much desired perch dinner. A real Wisconsin fish dinner. Caught, cleaned and cooked by yours truly. I’ll go back again. But I want to make this clear, although I catch perch, I do not consider myself a perch fisherman. At least not for a few more years.
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