When Lake Erie Perch Are on, They Are on Fire! by Bill Hilts Jr.

When Lake Erie Perch Are on, They Are on Fire! by Bill Hilts Jr.

Great Lakes Angler – August-September 2016


Lake Erie perch fishing was on fire! (2016). After a productive spring fishing season off New York’s large chunk of shoreline, anglers will be looking for a repeat performance in the fall.

In fact, perch action can be good all year long if you know where to look and how to fish for them.

Seeing 150 to 200 empty boat trailers at the parking area of Sturgeon Point Marina in Derby was not an uncommon sight in the spring … when the perch are “on.” Finding the fleet of boats to mark the best spot is not a difficult task. However, it really doesn’t have to be that way. There are a lot of “best spots.”

lake erie perch

When Capt. Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Charters called to say he had an open date (albeit short notice) this past spring, I quickly moved my schedule around to make room.

For the day in question (which was less than 24 hours away), the forecast called for northeast wind and a few sprinkles. The day before, Sturgeon Point Marina had been packed with boats on a day with nice spring weather and a calm breeze.

The weather forecast must have kept people off the water for our day of adventure.

It didn’t matter. Fonzi prefers to fish alone anyway, using spots in the lake he’s found between Sturgeon Point and Cattaraugus Creek. Thank God for GPS.

Fonzi brought along an old trapping buddy, Mike Lewis of Pembroke, NY, a corrections officer by trade. They used to fish, hunt and trap together all of the time before families and life got in the way. They still come up with ways to reconnect … like perch fishing or fishing in a bass tournament together.

The three of us headed out in Fonzi’s brand new 2016 Ranger 621 Fisherman Series outfitted with a 250 Yamaha CFX Offshore. The coolest thing on the boat was the Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor with a GPS chip in the head. He could also raise and lower it as needed by remote control. More on that later.

Fonzi had been out the day before and done well, so he headed back to the same general area marked on his Lowrance HDS 12 Gen 3 unit, another amazing piece of technology.

The boat cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter. The hull design didn’t produce a single splash despite the wave action. It didn’t take him long to find the fish and we started hitting perch almost immediately in 56 feet of water. Watching a pod of perch cross the fish finder,

Fonzi touched the screen of the Lowrance unit and it saved the spot to where the fish were. Amazing! Then the trolling motor took over and helped to keep us on the spot where we marked the fish. No anchor. The only thing it didn’t do was follow the small schools of fish around. “It’s almost like cheating,” said Fonzi as he worked his magic through his electronics.

“We spends a ton of money on these electronics and most people won’t pay attention to what it’s telling them,” he said. “If we are not marking fish below us, there aren’t any there. They’ve moved. We just need to find them again.”

We did that a few times, seeking out pods of perch that were moving around for whatever reason: chasing baitfish … or moving away from potential predators. At one point Fonzi caught a nice lake trout about 8 pounds.

lake erie perch fishing

The perch disappeared around us instantly and it took us 15 minutes to find them again.

A few times we were able to cast our perch rigs to the pods and pull some fish in. “Sometimes you can move a whole school back under the boat by casting into them,” said Fonzi.

Pulling fish up from the bottom in 56 feet of water didn’t really allow for catch and release. Almost every fish had its air bladder expanded into its mouth cavity and beyond. While most of the fish were 10 to 14 inches in length, a few of the fish were under that mark. They went into the cooler, too. It’s a waste if they can’t survive – and you are killing more fish than you need to.

Which brings us to the daily creel limit. The daily creel of yellow perch is 50 fish per person per day. Three guys in a boat could kill 150 in a day, and when these fish are biting, that’s entirely possible. Big fish, too. We fished five hours and boxed 126, using a “clicker” to try and keep track of our fish. In looking at the states to the west of New York, both Pennsylvania and Ohio allow for “only” 30 yellow perch per day. That should be enough. There should be some commonality between the states anyway.

With the popularity of yellow perch fishing increasing in Western New York, we need to take this change under serious consideration. At the Greater Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Expo in January 2017, the perch seminars were among the most popular educational classes. Combine that we recent success rates (2014 was the best catch rate ever on Lake Erie according the NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation) and the improvements in technology, we have to realize now that perch are not an infinite resource. We need to manage them accordingly. Reducing a daily limit isn’t going to happen overnight and we need to act now before it’s a necessity.

If you catch 30 perch, that’s 60 fillets—plenty for one person. Let’s not be greedy out there. They sure do eat good, though! A fresh perch dinner is tough to beat …

DEC Overview on Perch –

“Yellow perch numbers were down considerably in 2015 from the previous year,” said Jason Robinson, Aquatic Biologist with DEC’s Lake Erie Unit. “However, it was still the eighth highest harvest total in the 28 annual data series collected for the open lake sport fishing survey.

We were coming off a record year for harvest, effort and catch rates in 2014, so the 87,000 perch caught last year was still decent. Last year’s catch rate was the fifth highest on record.

The best yellow perch fishing takes place in spring and fall. With the mild winter, some perch addicts hit the waters from Sturgeon Point to Cattaraugus Creek early to take home plenty of these favored table fare—before any lake creel census was taking place.

This is a recruitment-driven fishery. We haven’t seen a decent year class since 2014, but that was not record-setting. A large adult population of fish is still available to anglers.”

Fonzi’s Perch Program

Fonzi has been doing this a long time. He recently renewed his fourth U.S. Coast Guard license, so that translates into 15-plus years. His fishing consistency combined with his ethical behavior and knowledge of Western New York’s Great Lakes waters earned him a spot on the local Cabela’s Pro Staff just this year, something he is proud of.

His basic equipment for perch is the medium-light Cabela’s Fish Eagle rods in 6 foot, 6 inches or 7 foot in length. The spinning reel is a Shimano Stradic or Symetre. For his simple perch rig, he sets it up the same as his drop shot rig for bass on the lake. He uses No. 1 Gamakatsu jig hooks tied directly to the line (without a leader), tying up two hooks.

The line is either an 8- or 10-pound test braid like Fire Line or 10-pound-test Nanofil line. This gives him a more positive feel for the perch overall. His weight at the bottom of that line varies with the conditions.

great lakes perch fishing

“I’ll only use enough weight to get me to the bottom based on what those conditions are,” says Fonzi. “I will look at the current and the waves that we will be encountering on the water to figure how much weight we will need. It might be a quarter ounce, but I may need as much as an ounce and a half. If I am casting, I might go with a slightly lighter weight. It’s might be a trial and error process until I figure out what works on any given day.”

“If I am searching for fish or if fish are scattered, I’ll set up a three-way rig with a 4- to 6-inch dropper to find bottom and a leader of just 18 to 24 inches behind the swivel. This is one way I like to fish in the summer when we’re fishing smaller pods of perch. Once we’re set up, I will use my electric trolling motor set at .6 mph to locate the pods. Once they are located, we will mark the spot and use the other tactics to take yellow perch until they move or shut down and start the process all over again.”

“These schools are around year-round,” insists Fonzi. “Yes, the best times are the spring and the fall, but you can do well in the heat of the summer if you know where to look. One popular food source for them is small gobies about an inch or an inch and a half in size. Because the gobies like to munch on mussels, they will hang around rocky areas. Perch was hang around those fringe areas seeking out these food sources. Like all fish, they are opportunistic feeders. Of course they also like emerald shiners and young of the year smelt, too. The deepest I have ever caught perch is 68 feet of water; the shallowest was 18 foot. I’ve found that perch move into shallower depths after they spawn in the spring, say 18 to 24 feet of water in spots that I have found. And when this happens around Father’s Day in June, we find the stomachs of the perch full of crayfish.”

Yellow perch fishing continues to gain in popularity.

Let’s hope Mother Nature produces some nice hatches in the years to come. In the meantime, we need to manage accordingly for those overall harvest numbers and the number of anglers targeting ringbacks in future years.

Let’s keep the experience a positive one and pass along a tradition to the next generation of fishermen and women.



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