The Lost Perch of Erie's Central Basin
“For the past three years, the perch fishing has been bad. I’ve been running half the perch trips that I ran four years ago,” said Vitas Kijauskas, Captain of the Cleveland head boat, the Linda Mae. “This past spring looked promising, and then the perch fishing from June through November was dismal.”
This has been a common refrain from the perch fishermen in Lake Erie’s central basin. Ohio’s central basin runs from Cranberry Creek, in the west, to the Pennsylvania line, in the east. While the caught perch tend to be huge, their numbers are few. Besides low catch rates, many anglers question where are the small perch?
Besides hurting the rod and reel anglers, the lack of perch has imperiled the charter boat business, bait and tackle shops, marinas, tourism etc.
In an effort to find out what’s happened to these perch, a number of interviews were made starting with the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Office.
When asked how bad is it?
“Angler catch rates on yellow perch are much lower than we would expect,” said Travis Hartman, Lake Erie Program Administrator. “In the central basin, these are the lowest angler catch rates that we have seen in years.”
Looking at the central basin’s historical background on yellow perch fishing, the lowest estimated populations were in the 1990s, according to the most recent model runs. During this low period, commercial netters, Division of Wildlife trawling, and angler’s catches were terrible. These three activities are used to determine the estimated perch numbers.
Around mid 2000's, with 2006 being the high point, was the highest central basin perch numbers ever seen. This was true for anglers, commercial netters and Division of Wildlife surveys.
“Now, commercial netters are getting average catch rates all season long in the central basin,” said Hartman. “In fact, their catch rates increased from 2016 to 2017 for trap netters. The netters met their quotas this year.”
The Division of Wildlife assessment surveys in the central basin, also showed average numbers of perch.
“Something has changed our ability as anglers to catch the perch that are there,” said Hartman. “It’s frustrating to come to grips with, as an angler, but enough perch are out there to catch them. The poor fishing results have led to fewer anglers fishing for them, which has further impacted the total angling catch.”
“I can’t tell you why anglers are catching fewer perch,”
...he explained. “I think the reality is they are eating more invertebrates, than they used to. In the past our diet surveys, of central basin perch, had a 50/50 split between invertebrates and fish in their guts (gobies/minnows/shad). Now, it’s 80% invertebrates.”
The majority of the invertebrates the perch eat are spiny water fleas and midge and mayfly larvae.
The emerald shiner numbers are down. Division surveys, over the years, have shown smelt fluctuations. Several years ago, there were lower numbers of smelt. Recently, nothing falls well outside the normal smelt fluctuations.
The perch hatches for the entire central basin were below average in 2016. In 2017 the central basin hatch was below average west of Fairport to Cranberry Creek and average east of Fairport. The 2014 hatch was average or better. Due to mechanical difficulties with the boats used for trawling, the 2015 results were inconclusive.
Lake Erie perch quotas are divided so 47% goes to Ontario, Canada and 44% goes to Ohio.
Within Ohio’s waters, 35% of the quota is given to commercial trap netters. Gill nets are not allowed. The other 65% is allotted to rod and reel anglers.
To get better data on central basin perch movements, Ohio’s Division of Wildlife tagged 8,379 perch from 2013-2015 with PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags. These are about the size of a grain of rice. They were tagged off Fairport. Canada also tagged some perch. It was found that the perch traveled an average of 24 miles. Some were captured near Fairport, a few were caught in Ontario and several off Point Pelee. Each fish’s tag was given a number, and the tag caused a beep when scanned.
Fairport Harbor is known as a central basin hotspot for perch anglers, particularly the hump which starts about three miles northwest of the harbor. In the past, commercial netting was not allowed within four miles of either side of the harbor. On the west side, this put the no-netting boundary close to the perch-rich hump, which anglers flocked to fish.
This created some unpleasant conversations between anglers and the commercial fishermen. Many rod and reel fishermen blamed their poor perch catches on increased netting near the hump.
Most anglers complained about the poor central basin perch fishing, but did little to solve the problem. Well, that wasn’t the case for Don Schonauer and a number of individuals. For the past 65 years, he has fished off Fairport for yellow perch, often three to four times a week. Those that fished with him, consider him an expert at finding and catching these delicious stripe-sided fish.
“Four years ago we could get our limit of perch in a few hours, said Schonauer. “Now, four good fishermen often only catch 12 perch total when fishing for six hours. There used to be schools of perch a mile long and a half mile wide. Now, you only see pockets of moving perch. We have changed fishing methods and continued to move around looking for schools of perch, with poor results.”
Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie is divided into three MU zones. Each zone has a commercial netters quota. East of Fairport is MU 3, and just west of the hump is MU 2.
“We get hit both ways, the MU 2 and 3 zones are each side of Fairport,” lamented Schonauer.“ Several years ago, the netters only took maybe 20 or 30,000 pounds of fish near the hump. Then they took 90,000 pounds of perch. That’s about three perch per pound or 360,000 perch.”
So, for four years Schonauer gathered data and lobbied local and state officials for some changes with the netting operations off the hump. Gathering support from anglers, local businesses, charter boat captains etc., he got his day in court. The end result was that he was told to negotiate an agreement with the commercial netters.
The netters agreed to not set nets in a rectangular zone four miles east, eight miles north and 13 miles west of the Fairport light house.
This provides an area of 130 square miles of no netting off Fairport.
The perch fishermens’ sacred hump will only be fished by anglers. This net-free zone will last for three more years.
In the interview, Schonauer offered some additional food for thought, “Wouldn’t it make sense to spread the nets out and not let them sit in one spot? They could keep the nets in one place for five days and after checking them, move them to another area. When they sit they can take a large amount of perch from one area.
"Fairport is going to be a test of the impact of concentrated netting versus no netting in one area.” - Don Schonauer
As stated in the introduction, Vitas Kijauskas, captain of the Linda Mae, believes there are fewer yellow perch. He also, believes there are other factors impacting the yellow perch in the central basin.
“I have been running the Linda Mae for 19 seasons. Over the years, we had commercial netting, and you still caught lots of perch,” said Kijauskas.
“However, three out of the past four years, we had large walleye hatches. Also, there were less smelt four or five years ago. And now there are fewer emerald shiners for the perch and walleye to eat. So, the walleye are eating anything they can get, and this includes small white bass, white perch, gobies and yellow perch.”
Vitas went on to say, “In the past the walleye migrated from the west and arrived in Cleveland around mid-June. This slowed down the perch fishing. As the waters warmed up in July, the walleye followed the smelt out into the cooler deeper waters, which the smelt like. After the walleye left, the perch started biting again. Now, there are walleye here all year, making the perch skittish and less likely to bite.”
To show how aggressive these walleye have become, the Linda Mae has had numerous trips where they caught perch that had walleye bites on their tails and sides.
So, with fewer perch and a bulging walleye population, Vitas feels that the netters definitely have an impact on the smaller perch populations.
It should be pointed out that the Ohio central basin netters are catching their 35% quotas.
In 2016 the trap netters caught almost 3 million central basin perch and in 2017 the preliminary netting figures are 2.9 million perch.
For Ohio rod and reel anglers, the 2016 harvest was a total of 640,000 perch in Ohio’s central basin. This was less than 20% of the anglers 65% quota. And for 2017, the preliminary numbers were 207,000 perch, or less than 7% of the anglers’ quota.
Those anglers, who are opposed to netting, point to the suspended netting in Lake Erie’s western basin.
Trap netting for perch was stopped here in 2008, 2009 and 2012 through 2015. In 2016 the western basin rod and reel anglers caught 82% of their 65% quota. In 2017 they landed 79% of their allocation.
“We all are all are looking for solutions, for central basin perch,” Vitas offered. “Why not stop netting off the shores where there are the most fishermen? Net where there are fewer fishermen..”
Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York also border some of Lake Erie. Michigan does not allow netting for yellow perch, while Pennsylvania and New York do.
So, is the whole problem due only to commercial netting as some anglers claim?
Or is it a combination of factors as others suggest? When the Ohio Division of Wildlife says, “It’s an angling issue.” This fires up a number of veteran perch anglers.
However, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission say, “The yellow perch sport fishery has been performing below average for the last few years, but our assessment nets (and the commercial fishery) suggest the fish are there—but the fish are not cooperating with the anglers.”
While there are a number of opinions, theories and facts, one thing is for certain. The central basin perch issue definitely is contentious.
Ice chests filled with central basin perch are the exception not the norm.
--- Adapt ---
New Techniques for Catching Central Basin Perch
So, has anybody come up with new successful techniques for catching central basin perch on a rod and reel?
“I started adapting when the perch fishing went south with the declining perch populations,” said veteran perch angler, Don Hamm. “I use a system, that lets me catch fish when others don’t.”
Hamm starts with a 7 ½ foot Fenwick HMG medium-light action rod. He spools his reel with 30-pound-test Power Pro line. He attaches a 12- to 14-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to the braided line with a barrel swivel. To the end of the leader he ties a two-ounce bell sinker. He puts a size two or four Tru Turn red snelled hook onto the sinker’s swivel.
Ten inches above the weight he puts another snelled hook onto a Bear Paw connector. A foot above the second hook, he attaches a third snelled hook. He catches 80% of his perch on the bottom hook.
Hamm emphasizes that the all the hooks must be blood red.
Lip hook your minnows and drop the sinker to the bottom. Crank the slack in until there is a light bend in the rod. Hold the line with your index finger. Set the hook the second you feel a bite.
If the perch are neutral, not hitting, lift the sinker 6 inches and drop it.
Keep doing this until a bite is felt. The puffing silt from the bouncing sinker often triggers a bite.
When the fishing is really slow, he breaks out a Sudoku Rig.
Often these come with five hooks, so cut two off. For those who unfamiliar with these multi-snelled rigs, look it up on the internet. He baits these small hooks with a maggot, wax worm, and a small red plastic worm.
Cast it out 10 or 15 feet from the boat, and leave some slack when the two-ounce sinker hits the bottom. The angler will feel a bite on the loose line with his index finger. This rig works well when the perch are feeding on insect larvae and spiny water fleas.
Hamm wants no bling on his rigs. No spinners, no beads, just hooks, bait and sinkers.
Written by Paul Liikala