The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Seeking Chesapeake Bay
White Perch, Morone Americana
The best is yet to come …
Aahhh … Finally the white perch. The yellow perch is more an end-of-winter thing than a portent of tropicality. When the whites start to run, you know you can break out the cotton shorts.
I took my first outing for white perch late last week, and while it was largely unsuccessful in providing dinner for five, I had a great time.
The white is the most popular pan fish of the Bay. Cousin to the rockfish, white perch are long lived: 15 to 20 years in some cases, though nine to 10 is probably average. They are the most populous fish in the Bay, spend their whole lives within the confines of our waters, are incredibly fecund, delicious and have proven remarkably resilient to the pressures that our relentless population growth has brought upon them.
The fish grow slowly, the females taking three years to sexually mature, and probably five years to get to nine inches, a reasonably edible size. A 12-incher is a whopper. When they spawn, as they are preparing to do now, they can spew out up to 150,000 eggs in efforts that last over three weeks. The eggs hatch in one to six days. Congregating in the headwaters of virtually all of the Bay tributaries, they will perform this activity off and on until late May.
Last Thursday the sun had taken us almost into the 70s for two days running, and I hoped that would boost the water temps into the low 50s. This would make the fish active enough to get hungry as well as seek out shallow waters to spawn.
All of the usual harbingers were in attendance on the broad creek near my home: ospreys and great blue herons; various types of gulls; a couple of noisy crows and more than a few courting mallards. The warm air was still, the water a beautiful glossy calm and the day full of promise. The osprey focused my attention, mostly because we were all after the same fish, and they had a far superior vantage point. Noting where they had circled most intently, I launched my small kayak and paddled in that direction.
This time of year there is no better rig for white perch than a light-action spinning rod with about six-pound-test, monofilament line. The best bait is a fresh grass shrimp on a small, chartreuse shad dart about three feet under a two-inch, weighted bobber.
Fish Are Biting
Lots of rock on the Susquehanna Flats, and the sizes are increasing. Hot action at Sandy Point and Matapeake with bait fishermen landing (and releasing) multiple fish over 30 inches on more than one day last week. The white perch run is on below the Bay Bridge, hanging fire above. This week’s temperatures should kick start it there as well. Shad still not in evidence, though the herring are running. Rockfish should be here in good numbers for the opening of the season on April 15.
I intended to prowl the shorelines, following the wheeling ospreys and poaching on the waters of stalking great blue herons. Both birds are better fish-finders, and so I am shameless about homing in on their water.
I worked the upper part of my creek thoroughly. Focusing on downed trees, rocky shorelines, coves and jetties, I cast the shrimp-tipped dart and bobber close to any structure I saw and worked it back with short starts and brief pauses. I took a few small males, but the larger fish were not joining the action.
The water temperature was too low, barely above 50 degrees. Only the osprey seemed likely to do anything with the perch. On two occasions after I thoroughly, and futilely, worked a good section, I was startled by a nearby splash. I watched both times as a fish hawk emerged, shook itself like a dog, and flew off with a large, fat perch impaled on its lunch hooks. This did nothing for my self-esteem.
The day started to drag. Sunning mud turtles barely acknowledged me as I plopped my shrimp and bobber next to their logs. A trim blackhead drake, which appeared to have missed the bus north, followed me for while, undoubtedly out of sympathy. He had the bluest bill I had ever noticed on this species of duck. It virtually glowed in the early afternoon light and made him the handsomest creature I had seen that day.
As the afternoon grew late, I finally headed back. I packed my rod and tackle bag, loaded the kayak back onto the pickup and headed for home. Perch had eluded me, but I’d had a magnificent first trip of the season. And I know that the best is yet to come.