Sporting Life

The Prince of Tidewater Fish

By Dennis Doyle

The strike almost stopped my heart. I was slowly drifting along a rocky shoreline early last season and tossing a ¼-ounce, chrome Rat-L-Trap as close to the stones as I dared but without much luck. Having given up casting small spinner baits because of the multitude of teeny perch that insisted on endlessly attacking my lures, I was seriously in doubt of the prudence of that decision when the big guy hit.

There’s not a much more pleasing sound on the Chesapeake than that of a drag buzzing merrily away on a spring morn with a small, light, spin rod bent to the corks and beginning to groan in agreement. 

It was a lively run, so I wasn’t too suspicious that the unseen hooligan might be a channel cat but I wasn’t yet certain that it was a big white perch.

I’ve long considered this perch one of the true sporting treasures of the Tidewater, the prince of all species hereabouts. Numerous, delicious, aggressive and widely available, it can be relied upon, assuming the use of properly scaled tackle, to provide endless adventure to the discriminating angler. 

My ruffian broached the surface about 50 yards out, flashing a broad, thick side with just a hint of gold. Bingo—that was a sure sign of a big white perch. I loosened up my drag a half turn not wanting to test its fragile mouth and looked about for the net I used to boat the larger specimens. Losing a 12-incher at the gunnel is an event that can haunt someone for the whole of a season.

A big perch does not ever swim gently to hand and this fellow was really making a point of it. White perch grow slowly and a big one can be easily over 10 years old, plenty of time to master some pretty clever tricks. But when it sighted my boat the argument got downright dirty.

Charging me the last 10 feet, the rascal sounded to the very bottom then ran under my skiff completely to the other side, taking gobs of mono against the drag. Plunging my rod tip into the water, I tried to keep my line from touching the hull. It wouldn’t take a lot of friction to snap the thin, and sorely stretched, 4-pound filament. Already, I regretted not spooling a fresher supply earlier that week.

As if sensing my fear, I heard the water froth noisily somewhere behind me as the fiend tried to bring my line up against the skiff’s bottom. I pushed my rod tip as deep as I could manage. Finally giving up on that tactic, it took off again on yet another run as I slowly worked my way to the bow, freed the line from underneath, and finally lifted my rod and leaned into the fish. I was rewarded by this devil heading back toward my lower unit.

Stumbling across the deck I headed it off and put as much pressure as I dared to discourage that course of action. The fish must have finally gotten tired because it altered its course back toward open water. That was fine by me; I waited patiently, kept a nice bend in my rod and with a light touch, slowly and inexorably worked it closer.

At the net the fish was on its side, exhausted and barely resisting. The only problem with big white perch is that there are relatively few of them these days so I try to let some of the lunkers go. But I was fishing for the evening’s table and, as much as I had admired this fellow’s kung fu, I dropped the thick, black-backed scrapper into the ice chest with three other (smaller) fish previously caught. Two more nice-sized perch would be just enough for a dinner fry for my wife and I.

White perch are currently still the most numerous fish in the whole of the Chesapeake, they are also delicious and hence the most harvested both by man and nature. A favorite of blue heron, osprey, bald eagles, otters, rockfish, bluefish, catfish, sea trout, and fellow anglers of all stripes that are looking for a tasty meal. Commercial netters, however, traditionally have taken the lion’s share of the yearly harvests with the sole DNR restriction being an 8-inch minimum size. A white perch can potentially grow to 19 inches and live up to 17 years but everyone hereabouts knows that a 10-inch white perch is becoming ever more scarce with a 12-incher being a once or twice a season experience. 

It might be prudent for the state to finally provide a bit more protection for this valuable estuary asset to insure its population health and perhaps even boost the average size. There are, after all, over 300,000 recreational anglers in Maryland that would appreciate it.