Chesapeake White Perch
Casting up tight to the riprapped shoreline, I flipped the bail closed on the small spin reel and started my retrieve. I wanted to keep the Rooster Tail lure up and off the submerged rock below. My retrieve slowed as the lure came away from the stony structure and I let it settle, slow rolling it down, close to the bottom where I hoped some big blackbacks were holding.
My bait stopped. I suspected a snag at first, but with big perch you never know. I gave my rod a good tug and the suspected snag took off, the drag zinging merrily. A particularly brawny perch was on my line.
Chumming continues to lure lots of keeper rockfish to 30 inches coming on a moving tide throughout the mid-Bay. Trolling remains productive as well, especially south of Thomas Point, though there are getting to be lots of throwbacks. The really interesting news is that top-water action is developing in shallow water in the early morning and late afternoon during high water conditions, and there are some good-sized stripers involved. And Breezy Point has finally come alive this past week, with a bigger class of rockfish, and lots of them, being caught by trollers.
From the bend of my rod I knew that this one had some shoulders. I played the rascal carefully, having learned long ago that as white perch get older their delicate mouth structure doesn’t get any tougher.
The fish made two or three strong runs down the shoreline then headed out toward deep water. I was patient as I turned, loosened the drag a bit and let the fish continue.
Some anglers prefer leaning hard on their perch from the start, believing that the shorter the fight the less chance for losing it. In my experience, however, quite a few of the big guys (those over 10 inches) were often held to the hook by just a filament of tissue that would have parted with only an ounce or two of additional pressure. I prefer my fish to end up in the cooler, so I always recommend a soft hand and using a net for the keepers.
Good Fishing; Good Eating
White perch are one of the most delicious fish in the Chesapeake. But many anglers look down on them in terms of challenge and fighting ability. Not so if you match the tackle to the fish.
With a light spin rod of six feet or so and four- to six-pound test line, you have to take more care with an 11-inch perch around shoreline structures than you would with a 36-inch striper on 30-pound trolling gear in the main Bay. As for a white perch’s lack of selectivity in biting any bait offered, I would submit that that covers only the eager little guys, not the bigger, wiser whities.
In shallow water environs, I consider a 12-inch perch on four pound-line to be the equivalent of a 10-pound rockfish on 15-pound mono in terms of challenge, difficulty in tempting and frequency of encounter.
Thriving in the Chesapeake
White perch are long lived, sometimes over 20 years, assuming they don’t end up on a dinner plate or in a striper’s gullet first. But they grow slowly, usually taking some five years to reach 10 inches. There are frequent and significant exceptions.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Paul Piavus tells me a 10-inch perch can be as young as three years or as old as nine. It all depends on their sex, where they were spawned, the availability of food and the attributes of the particular perch strain that spawned them.
Female perch in particular grow faster and larger, especially in waters with good availability of grass shrimp, small minnows and the like. Conversely, some Chesapeake Bay white perch have evolved the trait of growing very slowly as a survival mechanism.
A seven-inch perch that’s eight years old (well undersized for its age) will pass through the mesh of a waterman’s gill net or be tossed back by a sport angler as too small, free to go on its merry way and spawning more fish like itself.
White perch continue to be the most numerous and popular fish in the Bay. They are also the most frequently harvested species by both recreational and commercial fishers. Estimates range to four million pounds annually.
Despite this relentless pressure, white perch are thriving and, according to DNR studies, are more numerous today than they’ve been in the last 20 years. Plus they’ve been gradually increasing in average size.
Even more encouraging is that the 2011 spawn — a particularly good one for all fish species in the Bay — was remarkably good for white perch. Piavus predicts that as favorable as things are right now for securing a white perch dinner, in two or three years when the 2011 horde of whities assume eating-sized dimensions, it should become fantastic.
I’m really looking forward to that day. There can never be too many white perch in the Chesapeake — or on my dinner table.