Originally, this column was to be the third part in a series on ice fishing. However, warmer, inconsistent weather has not permitted safe ice with 100 miles of my home. Rather than run to the hinterlands to seek a few panfish, I think I'm gonna' stay closer to home and see what I can do locally.
Among the earliest fish to spawm are the yellow perch in tidal rivers and local lakes. Historically, great yellow perch fishing was at a large number of our Chesapeake tributaries and lots of plump one-pound plus fish were harvested by early season anglers who hit famous Eastern Shore streams like the Choptank, Chester, Nanticoke, Wye Mills or sections of downtown Salisbury. Western Shore waters like the Magothy and Severn were also hotspots back in the day.
Yellow perch harvest and regulations have undergone much change over the past 10 to 12 years and in Maryland these fish are now protected with a 10 fish per angler, per day limit that enables us to get in on some classic perch jerkin' and some of the best tablefare around.
Timing is the key, as these fish spawn when the water reaches 42 to 44 degrees and they make their 'run' up into tidal streams, rivers and guts to drop their eggs and then scooch back out once the eggs are fertilized by the males. Egg strands a sticky and gelatinous and adhere to weeds, stickups, brush and other debris.
The whole process takes about 72 hours, and there are traditionally 'pulses' or waves of different groups of perch that enter a water to spawn and then drop back when done, seeking deeper water to rest at. Lots of overlap, and most good perch anglers in the Chesapeake are keying their efforts in and around a 10-day period that will see a 'peak' spawning time in a particular river or estuary.
This occurs from late February until late March, depending on cold fronts or warm spells. Cold fronts can push staging perch back to deeper haunts while a five-day warm up will expedite the spawning process and the fish can be in and out in a hurry.
Local lakes are often overlooked when it comes to yellow perch. For a few decades, the ice and early spring bite of these fish at nearby Lake Marburg in Pennsylvania was one of the best around, with many fish exceeding a foot in length and 14 inchers not uncommon.
Now, that fishery has been adversely affected by the upsurge of white perch and over harvest issues, and it is struggling to make a comeback. In western Maryland, Deep Creek Lake remains the tower of yellow perch fishing regionally with similar catches. However, DCL has super jumbos that can exceed two pounds in weight - trophy fish anywhere in the nation.
Closer to home, Piney Run Lake has a great, almost untapped population of big perch, with 12-14 inch class fish turning up every year for the few anglers that target them. They are likely spawning as we speak, but seasonal regulations do not allow boats on this lake at this time, hence, when the park opens in April, the spawn will have been completed. Still, it is a viable option if you are inclined to pay the lofty park fees, and choose to target post spawn fish that still exceed a pound in weight.
Some of my better yellow perch fishing in recent years has been in small, public lakes where giants often roam. I tend to keep these fragile waters quiet, as the 'rape and pillage' crowd can surely change the dynamics of these sensitive fisheries in the course of just one angling season.
One of the reasons that yellow perch suffer declining size and numbers is due to the continual harvest of only the 'top-end' larger individuals within the population. You can't fish down numbers too easily, but you can surely fish down the size structure of panfish populations, and this certainly applies to the yellow perch.
Top baits for yellow perch would include minnows, grass shrimp and small shad darts or similar jigs that are from 1/32 to 1/8th of an ounce. They can be fished with or without a bobber on 6-pound test line with lightweight spinning tackle. At times, live worms or nightcrawlers can be very effective on slip-sinker rigs fished in shallow bays or coves where early spring weeds are starting to emerge.
Look for early perch to be near incoming streams or creeks that can warm up quickly if we get a warm, 50-degree rain event any time soon. Both Potomac and Susquehanna River tidal creeks have perch runs of varying degrees, and the North East River complex is another early season hotspot for these fish. Ten big perch make for a great fish fry!