Squeezing into awindow table at the Freshwater Lodge, a busy restaurant in Traverse City, hardby the Lake Michigan shoreline, Bruce Richards and I had a chance to rest aftera long day of fishing. There were heaping plates of sirloin and shrimp atneighboring tables, but the menu offered something better.
“Perch,”I said, nodding. “I’d like a platter of fried perch.” Richards, theworld-class fly-casting instructor from Michigan, laughed from across thetable. “You’re right,” he said. “They’re the best.” He orderedthe same.
Yellow perchoffer the finest of simple pleasures. Among freshwater fish, their sweet, whitemeat is arguably the best eating, rivaling fresh walleye fillets. They are alsoperhaps the most abundant of all panfishes in the northern half of the UnitedStates and are usually the easiest to catch, especially right around now.
With their deep-yellow sides barred with black, and distinctive bright-orangepectoral fins, yellow perch are easy to recognize. Spawning takes place whenwater temperatures approach 50 degrees in early spring and perch move into theshallows. Females spread eggs in long strands over old weedbeds or shallowrocky areas, where fishing a small worm or minnow held just above the bottom bya small bobber is a preferred tactic.
** Perch nibble at bait and don’t inhale it. Leaving the long ends of a gardenworm trailing from the hook almost guarantees lots of nibbles with few hookedfish. Use a small piece of worm that will just barely cover a size 4 bait hookso the fish will take it along with the bait.
Perch tend to school by size, and with any luck you’ll start to hit fish thatare 10 or more inches long. The world-record yellow perch of 4 pounds 3 ounceswas caught in New Jersey in 1865, but these days any perch heavier than a poundand longer than 13 inches is a trophy. If the perch you’re catching are all 8inches or shorter, look for another school.
**BEST BAIT RIGS
** Boat anglers typically drift-fish along appropriate depth contours to locate aschool. Once they have, they’ll anchor and drop their worms or minnows to thebottom. The typical rig consists of a small sinker at the end of the line withtwo or three dropper hooks spaced 6 to 10 inches apart above the weight. Varyyour sinker weight according to depth; ½ ounce might be enough to allow you tofeel bottom at 15 feet, but you might need an ounce or more in deeper waterlater in the summer.
I prefer jigging to baitfishing, if only because it’s more active. Use smalljigs with short tails because the fish, again, are notorious short-strikers. Ilike the marabou-tailed Foxee jigs by Blue Fox, in chartreuse, 1/16- and1/8-ounce sizes.
**You can catch perch on almost anything, but I prefer to use bait or jigs withtackle carrying 10-pound-test or lighter monofilament. You’ll do best with alittle finesse, however, and that means an ultralight spinning outfit spooledwith 4-pound-test FireLine and 3 feet of clear, 6-pound-test fluorocarbon lineas a leader. Connect the lines with back-to-back Uni knots. The low-stretchline gives you sensitivity for detecting light bites and also allows for aquick hookset when that tap-tap comes.
** Their abundance and willingness to bite make yellow perch ideal fish for littlekids to catch. Just watch out for the sharp spines in the dorsal fin. Carefullygrasp the fish across the body behind the head with your thumb and fingers toavoid getting pricked.
**Filleting a mess of perch is a little easier with theStanley Traveling Fisherman’s Set from United Cutlery Brands ($62;865-428-2532; unitedcutlery.com). Large and small fillet knives are included,along with a scaling knife, sharpener, utility scissors, cutting board, andnonslip gloves.