Winter Perch Bonanza
October 04, 2010
Yellow perch up to 16 inches long weighing nearly 3 pounds are not uncommon on these Empire State honeyholes. (February 2010)
Next to its firm white flesh, the main attributes of the yellow perch are its striking colors, its abundance and its gullibility. Few avid sportsmen can turn down a second helping of this freshwater stimulus package.
Fortunately for New York Game & Fish readers, the Empire State boasts many productive lakes, ponds and rivers that teem with plump perch year 'round. Some of these prime fishing holes are accessible only with an ice auger, but others are so deep and vast that they don't usually freeze over and may be probed efficiently in a boat or from shore.
The perch waters we're about to describe are among the state's very best. Take a 5-gallon pail with you when you give them a try, but be mindful that state regulations limit anglers to 50 perch per day in most cases.
All the fish that swim in Silver Lake, predator and prey alike, seem to grow to a good average size. The 9- or 10-inch perch that commonly pop through the frozen surface of the 760-acre Wyoming County lake managed to dodge hungry alewives and bluegills when they were fry, and then escaped lunker largemouths, walleyes and northern pike as they grew older.
Silver Lake is about four miles west of Letchworth State Park, near Castile. Because it is within a couple of hours of Rochester and Buffalo, it can be crowded with 100 or more hardwater enthusiasts on sunny winter weekends. Social-minded fishermen enjoy the camaraderie that results, but if you prefer a bit of solitude, visit Silver Lake on a weekday or set your tip-ups elsewhere.
To get to Silver Lake, follow U.S. Route 20 west from the Livingston County village of Avon. After crossing the Wyoming County border, turn left onto Route 246. It's about 18 miles to the village of Perry, and then another mile or so to the ice.
Public access is available from the state park at the south end of the lake or, with the proprietors' permission, at private marinas on the east shore.
Once you've arrived at the lake, either follow the footprints of previous hole-drillers or start prospecting in the 20- to 25-foot depths at the north or south ends. In the summer months, weedbeds extend into those areas, and perch tend to school along the edges of the dormant vegetation in February as well.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 9 office in Allegany, at (716) 372-0645, will supply a simple contour map of Silver Lake, and the Wyoming County tourism office, at (716) 493-3190, offers brochures for trip planning.
Only two bodies of water in the state, both in the Finger Lakes chain, seem capable of growing a yellow perch big enough to top the New York state record, 3 1/2-pound jumbo jack caught in Lake Erie in 1982. The two contenders happen to be next-door neighbors.
Keuka Lake, the one that's shaped like a tuning fork or a slingshot handle, is so large and deep that it forms little, if any, ice in a typically frigid western New York winter.
Keuka may sprout tenuous ice caps at its north and south ends during a usually frosty season, but most of its surface stays ice-free even in January and February. Boating anglers target schools of perch that ice-fishermen can't go after on these lakes, and their efforts often pay off with stringers that weigh between 3/4 and 1 1/2 pounds.
Rochester-area expert Ron Boyce, who avidly seeks big yellow perch in all seasons of the year, said Keuka lake is now the better of the two lakes for producing large numbers of 11- and 12-inch perch, while nearby Seneca Lake is the place to go for that 14- or 16-incher that merits a visit to a taxidermy shop.
Boyce said the perch bite is dependable in Keuka from early November through the winter, as long as open water is available.
Year-round open water is a boon for perch because it affords a respite from deadly efficient ice-fishermen, and aids in the production of a rich and varied food chain.
"When you combine a solid plankton base for the smaller fish with a strong alewife population for the older fish, that's a perfect scenario for producing the biggest perch," said Boyce.
Keuka Lake stretches over 11,730 acres between Penn Yan in Yates County and Hammondsport in northern Steuben County. It has a maximum depth of 186 feet and a mean depth of 101 feet.
Likely locations for midwinter schools of perch start with Bluff Point, where the west (Branchport) and east (Penn Yan) forks of the lake converge. The jacks here are so tubby that anglers might need two 5-gallon buckets to contain a 50-fish limit! Needless to say, rookies do not often make such catches, and experts like Boyce ply their drop-shot rigs and grub or minnow baits with the dexterity of a jeweler -- or a safecracker.
In addition to Bluff Point, be sure to try the water between Branchport and Keuka Lake State Park, which has a serviceable boat launch near the northern tip of the lake's west arm or any of the points on the west shore of the lake's Penn Yan branch.
To get to Keuka Lake from the Rochester or Syracuse areas, take U.S. Route 20 to Geneva and turn south onto Route 14. At the Route 54 sign, head southwest to Penn Yan.
The DEC's Region 8 office in Avon, at (585) 226-2466, is a good source of up-to-date information on Keuka Lake fishing and weather conditions.
Not long ago, Seneca Lake was the best place in New York to catch big perch and lots of them. Boyce's annual Perchmasters Derby, held each April, usually produced many 1 1/2 to 2-pound specimens, as well as the occasional wallhanger that looked large enough to go snout-to-fin with a whopper smallmouth.
"If you are after a mounting fish, nothing rivals Seneca Lake," Boyce said. "Other Finger Lakes can grow perch of equal length, but no other water around produces the same length-girth combo that Seneca does."
Unfortunately, the 618-foot-deep lake (averaging 291 feet!) does not offer the numbers of nice, plate-sized perch it used to, at least in Boyce's estimation.
Schools of perch in Seneca Lake aren't as ubiquitous as they used to be, and fishermen often crowd other boats to get at remaining hotspots such as Dresden Bay on the west shore and Glass Factory Bay at the north end.
Seneca's perch, which still average an ho
nest foot long, top out at 3 or 4 inches longer than that. One way for a first-timer to break through on New York's deepest lake is to fish from shore, either at Sampson State Park on the east shore, off Route 96A. Or try the village pier and marina in the south-end village of Watkins Glen. Both spots are ice-free and eminently fishable in February. They draw plenty of perch as long as the lake's voracious northern pike aren't hanging out in the immediate vicinity. To get to Seneca Lake, shore-anglers can take Route 20 to East Geneva, and then travel south on Route 96A to Sampson State Park. Or take Route 14 south from Geneva to Watkins Glen. State boat launches are available at Sampson and Watkins Glen.
Seneca Lake's surface can get nasty in a hurry, and Boyce urges anglers not to venture across open water unless they have a seaworthy craft that will handle 3-foot whitecaps. A backup motor, either gas or electric, is also essential for safety, he said.
For current information on Seneca Lake conditions, call Seneca Marine, Bait and Tackle in Watkins Glen at (607) 535-6690 or Roy's Marina in Dresden at (315) 789-3094.
Lodging brochures and other information useful to traveling fishermen may be obtained through Finger Lakes Tourism (800) 530-7488.
A popular yet roomy place to drill for panfish, Sodus Bay is a 3,000-acre gouge in Lake Ontario's Wayne County shoreline of. During summer, a majority of its perch is on the small side, but in winter Sodus Bay fills up with fish that spend the warm months of the year stuffing themselves in the open waters of the big lake. These perch generally run between 9 and 11 inches, but if you hit it just right you may tie into some egg-laden hens weighing more than 1 pound apiece.
Be advised that if you opt to target jumbo perch with minnows, light leaders and tip-up rigs, you're very likely to have some bite-offs, for the bay has a robust population of northern pike. In fact, when perch abruptly stop biting for you and other nearby anglers, it's a good bet that a few big pike have moved into your neighborhood.
Most Sodus Bay perch specialists, mindful of prowling pike, prefer to seduce perch by jigging with ultra-light lines and teardrop jigs tipped with a couple of mousies or other larvae. They also drill lots of holes and move every 15 minutes or so if the bite seem to dwindle.
Sodus Bay is a convenient destination for Rochester and Syracuse anglers but is fishy enough to attract ice-fishing fanatics from other regions of the state, too. You can expect some competition on the weekends, for sure.