My memory of big white perch begins on the Eastern Shore. I was fishing out of Crisfield in the early 1970s with the first fly-fishing guide on the Chesapeake, Doug Carson. I had looped out a long cast with a small, white marabou streamer to a sunken rock jetty off Janes Island and had come tight with what I assumed was a rowdy schoolie rock.
As I fought it near the boat, Doug reached over, grabbed my leader and flipped the chunky devil into the skiff remarking, “Nice black perch. Didn’t want you to lose that one.”
Looking at the dark, black-backed fish flopping all over the deck I said, “Isn’t that a white perch?”
“Yeah, but around here we call the big ones black perch. The little ones are whites,” Doug replied.
That still makes a lot of sense to me.
Just last week, searching for Norfolk spot for live-lining to striped bass, I had stumbled on a gathering of those big black-backed perch. They were incredibly thick-bodied, and the few that I had caught measured around 11 inches. Then I had abandoned them to continue my search for bait-sized (four to six inches) spot, a search that proved ultimately unsuccessful.
The memory of those big perch haunted me for days. Now I was back for a rematch with the black-backed devils and armed to the teeth for what I, and many other fervent anglers, consider one of the best-tasting and hardest-fighting treasures of the Chesapeake.
Dressing for Success
On the deck of my 15-foot skiff were arranged three light spin rods — much more efficient than fly rods for catching white perch in numbers. My goal this time was a family perch fry, and the hefty fish I was seeking would undoubtedly prove almost as sporting on light spin tackle as they would have on a fly rod.
My long, six-foot-nine-inch rod had six-pound, ultra-thin mono spooled on its reel and sported a one-sixth-ounce Super Rooster Tail in the Clown Coach Dog pattern. That singular bait has become, over the last half-dozen years, the pre-eminent Bay lure for coaxing white perch out of the shore-bound structure they sometimes prefer this time of season.
With that rod’s length and that lure, I had the perfect long-range searching tool. Working from a distance and drifting the areas around those where I had originally encountered the big guys, I hoped to encounter them again. Once I had, I would quietly move up, anchor and work them over.
The two shorter rods, five-and-a-half-footers, were fixed with eight-pound-test line for better dealing with the abrasion of the heavy, rock-strewn structure. They had different lures tied on. White perch won’t hesitate to hammer the Rooster Tail, but after it’s been presented to a particular area a number of times, interest in it will decrease — though numerous fish may still be present.
Switching to another pattern or type of lure will often regain their interest and in some cases result in triggering strikes from even bigger fish. I have found, particularly, that even after rejecting other artificials, often a jumbo perch can’t resist a small, noisy crank bait.
So while one of the other rods was simply adorned with another pattern of spinner bait, I had the second rigged with a blue-backed, chrome-sided Rattle Trap in one-eighth-ounce. That tiny plug had enticed vicious strikes from some jumbo perch in the past. I hoped it would again today.
I also carried a small, long-handled crab net for scooping the delicate-mouthed, hard-fighting devils as they neared the boat. Although Doug Carson didn’t hesitate to line flip that big black into his boat 30-some years ago, a 12-inch perch back in those days and in that neck of the woods was no big thing. Today in the mid-Bay, if I lost one that size at skiff-side, it would be cause for tears.
Just once in a great while a plan works out perfectly. This one did it in spades, or more accurately, in an ice chest of fine black perch. Finding the jumbos still close to where I first encountered them a week ago, over the course of two hours I tangled with countless numbers of tough-fighting fish — to the point of a sore wrist and an aching arm.
A dozen and a half of the nicer ones, all weighing about a pound apiece and measuring up to 12 inches, I put on ice. It proved a memorable day and an even more memorable dinner. Though it wasn’t done on a fly rod, I think Doug would still have been proud of me.