Late winter and early spring are prime times to get in on the New York ice-out yellow perch bonanza.
Of all the fish inhabiting New York freshwater, yellow perch are among the most popular. And for good reason.
Compared to the members of the trout, salmon and bass clans perch can be easy to catch, although they can be tenacious at times, and they are everywhere. In fact, there are few lakes, ponds, reservoirs and river across the state that do not support a perch population.
Perch can be caught throughout the year, but most avid perch enthusiasts will agree late winter and early spring can be especially productive.
Yellow perch spawn in the spring when water temperatures are roughly between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but even before then, often before or just after ice-out, perch will begin to stage near or in weedy coves and bays and off tributary mouths in anticipation of the spawn, which takes place in March or April in New York waters.
During this period, perch are in relatively shallow water — often less than 20 feet or so — meaning there is seldom need for deep water lures and tactics.
The perch are also concentrated, making them easier to target. While on the hunt, it pays to keep in mind the presence of weed growth is important at this time of season since the weeds provide cover and food but also because perch attach their long, stringy egg strings to the vegetation to keep them oxygenated.
Best of all, like bass during the spawn, perch can be aggressive protecting their spawning territory thus offering some fast, steady action.
FINGER LAKES REGION
Each of the 11 Finger Lakes has perch. Good catches — both in terms of size and quantity — are possible on each, but some are worthy of special note. Which of those few should top the select list depends on who you talk to, but we'll concentrate on Seneca Lake. As the largest in a chain of big lakes, Seneca rarely freezes completely over. That means fishermen can wet a line year around when weather conditions permit — and often earlier than on other lakes that may still hold ice in March.
Seneca gets heavy fishing pressure and does not support as many fish per acre as some lakes, so it takes experience to creel the 50-fish daily limit on the big lake.
Seneca, however, has the reputation of producing some of the largest perch in the region. Seneca perch have been averaging 10 to 12 inches but it is specimens in the 14- and 15-inch class and that makes the big lake so popular.
When the bite is on the fishery draws fleets of boats fishing small jigs, minnows and, when available from local bait shops, cranefly larvae, called "oakleaf" grubs by the locals. They work well on all the Finger Lakes when targeting perch.
As for good places to start, a few include the Glass Factory Bay area in Geneva, the Dresden and Severne areas on the west side, the Pontius Point area north of Sampson State Park, Lodi and Valois points on the east side and waters off Watkins Glen on the south end. Most of these areas also offer public access points. Land-based anglers might do well at the pier at Watkins Glen.
As for other lakes in the area, Keuka Lake is known for producing good catches of 3/4- to 1 1/2-pound perch, with larger examples quite possible. Parts of Keuka often stay ice free many winters, or at least offer open water this month.
While fisherman in early and mid-March may have to pick calm days to get on the north and south ends, there is good action off Bluff Point, the waters of Keuka State Park and Branchport at the northern tip of the west arm, between Keuka Park and Penn Yan on the north end of the east arm.
On the south end, the weedy, shallow areas off Hammondsport often do well this month, too.
Many of the other lakes in the area are apt to be partially ice coved in early March, but can be completely free, depending upon how severe the winter and what spring brings. But where ice persists or open water is available, anglers should do well on the perch-rich south end of Skaneateles Lake near Glen Haven and Fair Haven, as well as on the vast, shallow north end of Cayuga Lake.
For information on ice, open water and general lake conditions fishermen might want to check in with the DEC Region 8 office in Avon, telephone (585) 226-2466.
Predicting March weather and lake conditions in upstate regions of the state is a crapshoot, but whether ice persists well into the month or open water comes early, the perch angling can be some of the best of the season.
Perch may spawn in April, but before that the fish start staging near shallow shoals, protected shorelines or coves and bays and other near-shore areas that support the weed cover that perch use to attach strings of their transparent eggs.
Fortunately, the New York side of Lake Champlain has plenty of these areas. Anglers can do well jigging small minnow-like lures tipped with a piece of worm, nightcrawler, grubs, mealworms and other naturals.
Areas in the northern section of the lake that typically hold perch all season include the King Bay area along the King Bay Wetland Management Area, Trembley Bay just below Chazy Landing, and off the Monty Bay Wildlife Management Area.
South of these, prime spots include Deep Bay at Point Au Roche State Park in Beekmantown, Cumberland Bay and the rocky points, beach area and break wall south of the Saranac River.
Further down the lake potential hotspots include Willsboro Bay, the sand flats off the Ausable River near Ausable Beach and Northwest Bay off Westport and Bulwagga Bay at Crown Point. These are large areas so if targeting perch proves challenging or the action is slow, look for groups of anglers, which are generally a good clue where to wet lines.
Covering nearly 80 square miles Oneida Lake is the largest lake entirely within New York borders and has the reputation as one of the best yellow perch lakes in the country.
It's a reputation rightly deserved despite changes to the big lake. Since the introduction of Zebra mussels, water clarity has greatly improved and that has had a major impact on vegetation in the lake's shallow areas.
The vegetation has in turn provided more spawning areas for perch. On the other hand, the clearer water conditions have resulted in lower survival of very young perch and overall perch numbers are lower than the historical average. Despite this, Oneida Lake's yellow perch fishery is still worthy of note.
Traditionally, Oneida still holds ice in March, although during milder winters there is certainly no guarantee. Anglers planning on hitting the lake are advised to check in with the DEC Region 7 office in Cortland by dialing (607) 753-3095 for current conditions.
Whether anglers are on ice or open water, some of the larger bays are popular spots for Oneida perch.
These would include Big Bay in the northwest corner along the Big Bay Swamp shore and adjoining Three Mile Bay WMA, including Three Mile Bay on the north shore. On the south side spots worth checking out include Muskrat Bay, Short Point and Lower South Bays and others all the way to South Bay on the east end.
The shallows around Frenchman and Dutch Island, about midway between Phillips Point on the north side and Valentines Beach on the south, can also produce good perch catches. So can many of the mid-lake shoals scattered throughout the lake, many of which ascend to 12 and 18 feet below the surface.
The NYDEC web site has a map sowing these areas at www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/oneidalkwmap.pdf. The same site has information on public access points.
On safe ice, small minnows attached to tip-ups, and jigging with small spoons tipped with bait are both productive.
Lake Ontario is well-known for its salmon and brown trout fisheries — but yellow perch are also well established and highly sought. Most specimens run 10 to around 12 inches, but larger bucket fillers are certainly possible.
This is especially true during the March and early April runs when perch move from the lake's open water where they feed during the winter in to south shore bays.
Popular and productive hotspots include the Little Sodus Bay and Fair Haven areas between Oswego and Sodus Bay. And Sodus Bay itself is also well known for its March perch. Irondequoit Bay at Rochester and Braddock Bay further west off Lake Ontario State Parkway holds good numbers of over-wintering perch.
Launch facilities and access to both ice fishing and shoreline fishing (when open water is available) are available in Braddford Bay State Park and Wildlife Management area on Manitou Bay in the Town of Greece.
Further west the lower reaches of Oak Orchard Creek experience good migrations in mid-to-late March. If open water is available, boats can be launched at Oak Orchard Creek State Marine Park on Archbald Road in Westport.
New York's other Great Lake, Lake Erie, has a reputation as a top yellow perch fishery that equals or tops Lake Ontario. Of course, it depends who you talk to, but there's little denying Lake Erie offers some superb early season action.
The problem is getting on the water — or, as is the case most years, the ice. To hit the best perch areas it is necessary to get off shore a few miles — and ice conditions in March can be treacherous, to say the least. Pressure cracks, currents, chucks of block ice and wind all come into play. Caution is always well advised.
One area popular with area perch fisherman is a couple miles off Sturgeon Point. Many head slightly northwest until they hit the 50- or 60-foot mark and jig with small emerald shiners attached to drop-shot rigs. A public access is available by taking Route 5 and then Sturgeon Point Road west of Highland-on-the-Lake. Keep in mind that yellow perch are transient, always moving in search of food. Action can be hot one day and cold the next but persistence generally pays off.
Closer to shore, the Beaver Island State Park area on the south end of Grand Island can produce some good perch through the ice. Access is through the marina off Park Road. Once again caution is advised.
March lake and weather conditions vary greatly from ice-clogged, wind-swept shorelines and bays to balmy temperatures, but they can change quickly. For that reason, many perch fishermen concentrate on shore access areas during the March and April runs when fish begin to migrate inshore.
For up-to-date other perch hotspots anglers should telephone the DEC's Lake Erie Fishing Hotline. (716) 679-ERIE or (716) 855-FISH.
When conditions are tough on Lake Erie or the perch action is slow, Chautauqua Lake between Jamestown and Mayville is a good alternative. The lake covers more than 13,100 acres, and is the largest lake entirely within western New York.
Even more important, it supports a thriving yellow perch fishery and generally has plenty of ice in early and mid-March, if not later.
There are also plenty of places to fish. In the North Basin Hartfield Bay on the extreme north end, Chautauqua Point, Dewittville Bay, Sunset Bay and Bemus Bay, all on the east side, are good spots.
On the west side the Irwin's Bay, Prendergast Point and Tom's Point generally produce good catches. In the South Basin, perch fisherman do well in any of the bays all the way to Sherman's and Bertus Bay near Lakewood and Celoron.
Lake maps showing depths and information on public access points are available on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov.