With the temperatures cooling, yellow perch fishing heats up in the fall on this Great Lake.
By John Hageman
Although available year-round somewhere on Lake Erie, yellow perch are targeted in earnest by anglers each fall. While walleyes are fine too, many of us leave room in our freezers for perch — the best-tasting species of fish in the lake.
For those with a boat, plenty of launching ramps near good perch fishing areas encircle the entire lake. In Ohio, they range from the Ottawa River, near Toledo to Conneaut, near the Pennsylvania state line.
At certain times of the year though, even the boatless can catch perch from the shoreline. In fact, the current Ohio state record perch was caught on April 18, 2016 by a shore fisherman. It officially weighed 2.86 pounds and taped out at 15 3/4 inches long.
There are many public access points along Ohio's lakeshore. Some have smooth, concrete piers and others have more rugged trails over crushed stone paths. In both cases, the farther you go out, the better the fishing generally becomes.
A complete list of public access sites can be found in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Coastal Management's publication, Ohio's Lake Erie Public Access Guide.
As a rule, widespread schools of Western Basin perch are smaller than those found further east. The tradeoff for smaller Western Basin perch is that traditionally there were greater numbers found in this shallow, nutrient-rich nursery portion of the lake.
However, in recent years, the Central Basin had both: size and numbers — and anglers took notice. From 2005-2014, a perch fishing Nirvana existed between Huron and Conneaut, which drew people from July through the end of the fall boating season.
According to DOW's Lake Erie Fisheries Administrator Travis Hartman, optimal water temperatures along with adequate food supplies favor faster perch growth in the Central Basin. He says that in the Western Basin, higher summer water temperatures cause perch to quickly metabolize their food energy at the expense of growth.
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At a little after sunrise on my very first trip to Conneaut, our Charter Captain anchored his 23-foot Crestliner in 46 feet of water where the fish finder indicated a school of perch stacked more than 10 feet thick off the bottom.
Within 5 seconds of the time I lowered my 3-hook "crappie rig" to the bottom, I felt fish nibbling and soon reeled in what turned out to be my first "triple-header." Even better, they were all over 9 1/2 inches long, immediately endearing me to this portion of the Lake.
We had 120 perch in the cooler in less than 90 minutes, with several long enough to qualify as a "Fish Ohio" trophy of 13 inches or greater. At 59 pounds, they had nearly a half pound average, commonly seen in this portion of the lake.
In Ohio, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife (DOW) uses 3 fisheries management units for Lake Erie. District 1 (D-1) is the Western Basin, District 2 (D-2) runs from Huron to West of Fairport Harbor and District 3 (D-3) goes from Fairport Harbor to Conneaut.
Annual trawls are conducted by biologists in Ohio and Ontario to determine the average numbers of young-of-year, or age 0 fish of each species per hectare in each management unit. A hectare (ha) is the metric unit of area measure, which when converted into English units, equals 2.47 acres.
The average Yellow perch catch in the trawls for the 3 management units are: D-1: 432.1/ha; D-2: 189.1/ha; and D-3: 342.5/ha.
WESTERN BASIN HATCH SUMMARY
After 2003, the Western Basin had 8 out of 9 hatches measured by the DOW as below average, with the exception of 2007 (592.9/ha). The 2004, 2011 and 2012 hatches were extremely poor with only 40.9/ha, 29.9/ha and 74.5/ha respectively.
As a result, there were so few perch that the commercial netters were given little or no quota to catch from D-1 and Western Basin sport anglers saw their catch rates fall.
However, 4 solid hatches in a row beginning in 2013 will provide consistent numbers for years to come. The almost-average 2013 hatch (398.7/ha) entered the fishery late in 2015 as marginal "keepers" but were over 8 inches long last summer (2016).
The 2014 hatch was above average (668.7/ha) and noticeably added more fish to the western end of the lake. As 6 1/2- to 7-inch "dinks," they dominated the catches in late 2015 and again in 2016, when they grew from 7 to over 8 inches by the end of the fall season.
The streak of decent hatches continued with the 2015 hatch at 264.9/ha and in 2016 at 329.4/ha. The 2017 results were not yet available at press time.
The Central Basin bounty lasted for several years, thanks to a string of good hatches in District 3 that included the 2003 (1170.2/ha), 2005 (278.2/ha), 2007 (237.0/ha) and 2008 (558.3/ha) year-classes.
However, the almost-guaranteed limit catches of the preceding years in Ashtabula and Conneaut became less certain in 2015 and 2016, due to poorer reproduction after 2008.
According to most reports, fishing was even worse from Vermilion to Geneva. In District 2, a measurable hatch in 2012 of 65.9/ha and another token hatch in 2014 of 33.6/ha will provide some keeper size perch this year, but at much smaller levels than seen in the peak years of 2005-2014.
It is important to note that perch are considered to be homebodies and not likely to migrate to other areas distant from their birthplace to replenish areas with lower densities. Their seasonal movements are thought to be restricted to inward and outward movements relative to the shoreline.
Additional factors, other than poorer reproduction, appears to be impacting fishing success too.
LOW OXYGEN "DEAD ZONES"
Geologically speaking, the Central Basin is defined as the lake in-between Cedar Point (Ohio) and Presque Isle, Pennsylvania on the south side and Pelee Point to Long Point, Ontario on the north shore.
In the Central Basin, each summer the water column stratifies into thick layer of warm water over a thin layer of cold water, separated by a transitional band of quickly declining water temperatures called a thermocline.
Because the bottom water gets separated from the oxygenated surface water, it is subject to hypoxia, which is low dissolved oxygen. When the dissolved oxygen levels decline to 0.0 parts per million, it is called anoxic or a "Dead Zone."
There is evidence that the dead zone impacts perch location, including their position within the water column, in order to for them to comfortably remain in adequately oxygenated water.
There were high numbers of "bugs" reported in perch stomachs by "fish cutters" at fish cleaning facilities last summer.
The "bugs" that I observed packed into hundreds of perch stomachs that I examined last summer were bythotrephes, commonly known as the spiny water flea, a type of large Eurasian zooplankton.
The DOW's 2015 Lake Erie Fisheries Summary also noted Bythotrephes as the dominant prey in Central Basin perch stomachs.
Plankton are transported at the mercy of waves and current. The perch follow these plankton clouds, explaining the cause of the catches that often occurred in short bursts, followed by long pauses.
About a dozen of the 63 perch that we landed one day last summer near Ashtabula came after reeling 10-12 feet up to actively feeding fish spotted on the fish finder, where the water fleas were sometimes concentrated.
Anglers who insisted on only fishing near the bottom and not reeling up to suspended marks left these perch uncontested.
Stomachs full of zooplankton may have influenced the acceptance by perch of alternative bait minnow species that are now being sold to fishermen in place of the traditional, locally caught Emerald shiners.
Emerald shiner shortages have occurred ever since Hurricane Sandy came through in the fall of 2012. At first, the bait dippers thought that the shiners were temporarily pushed offshore, beyond their traditional collecting locations along the coastlines or in marinas and rivers.
However, observed shortages continue to exist everywhere, supported by DOW trawling data. Bait shops are now forced to sell southern pond-raised minnow species, including fathead minnows (chubs) and golden shiners (goldies).
Of the two, perch greatly prefer "goldies" over "chubs," but there were times when perch would not enthusiastically feed on either of these species.
When we had a mix of emerald shiners and "goldies" from the bait shop (and perch were feeding), the emeralds were greatly preferred, even if they were previously frozen. I usually use about a 3/4-inch piece of bait when I am using emerald shiners, which is convenient since they are so hard to obtain lately.
Late last summer, perch finally started biting on the golden shiners and by the end of the season, many anglers were finally convinced that the minnow species no longer mattered. I found that whole, smaller "goldies" worked the best.
Some of the head boat companies in Port Clinton posted seasonal tallies of the numbers of perch that their customers caught. By the end of the season, it numbered in the tens of thousands each, all caught on the goldies supplied on board.
According to official DOW creel surveys taken from 2013 to 2016, seasonal yellow perch catch rates climbed in the Western Basin from 2.8 to 4.1 perch per hour. Fishing effort declined in 2014 and 2015 after visible algae blooms became severe.
Due to low precipitation levels in 2016 leading to reduced Maumee River nutrient loading, the algae blooms were minimal last summer.
The catch rates in the Central Basin declined from 2.6 to 1.2/hr. in D-2 (West-Central Basin) and from 5.0 to 1.9/hr. in D-3 (East-Central Basin).
LAKE ERIE YELLOW PERCH FORECAST
For at least the next few seasons, the Western Basin will take over as the best place to catch perch in Lake Erie. The 2013 and 2014 year-classes are both solid keepers now, and will grow larger this summer.
If widespread algae blooms return, anglers are likely to avoid affected areas by concentrating their efforts in the Kelleys Island to Lorain area. For the location of current algae blooms, see the Modis satellite image at: https://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov.
There are fewer 2-year-old perch from 2015 than the older two year-classes, but expect some of these dinky "bait-stealers" to be present — they are the price of having decent, annual hatches. The size of the perch from the 2016 and 2017 year-classes should still be too small to hit baited hooks this season.
It may take more searching, but there are still yellow perch available in Ohio's East-Central Basin in catchable numbers, including jumbos, from Fairport Harbor to Conneaut. Prospects are dimmer in the West-Central Basin between Avon and Eastlake.
However, until there are additional good hatches in the Central Basin, anglers will struggle to consistently match the catch rates of recent years.
To view the 2016 Lake Erie fisheries summary, see http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.