“It was nonexistent last year,” said Adam Welch, who operates Fishin’ Edition Charters out of Meinke Marina just east of Toledo. “Most of my clients wanted perch. In fact, a lot of the guys in my marina were cancelling trips because they had no other option.”
Welch, like most charter captains, found himself in a bad spot with the yellow perch, considered by most people the best table fare Lake Erie has to offer and fetching up to $23 a pound.
“I know some captains were declining trips. There’s a lot of people that love to catch yellow perch and they know what’s going on,” he said. “Charter captains are honest with their customers and I can appreciate that.”
But there is an upside to 2019’s terrible perch fishing season, Welch said.
“We didn’t have to worry about chasing all over for emerald shiners.”
Five or six years ago, emerald shiners were the go-to bait for yellow perch fishing. The small silver minnows with an emerald-green cast on their backs schooled by the millions and were the favored target of commercial bait operations.
But a couple years ago, their population plummeted.
Emerald shiners take a hit
Attracted to light, they’re netted on nights with no moon by commercial bait fishermen launching a string of floating lanterns. The fish follow the lights as the line is pulled in until the last lantern reaches the boat.
The shiners are netted by the tens of thousands. They’re sold by the gallon to bait shops, which in turn sell them by the scoop to eager anglers who use them for walleye, crappie and yellow perch, among others.
But in recent years, shortages have emerged. Most bait shops have a sign that reads simply “No Shiners” which they display when they’re out. And that’s often, nowadays. A scoop of emeralds currently runs upwards of $4, often more than $5. Just a few years ago a scoop could be had for $1.75 or $2.
While shortages were often expected later in the summer when yellow perch fishing really gets going, they now extend throughout the season. Currently, golden shiners are the predominant live baitfish sold to Lake Erie anglers.
Just a few years back, it was difficult to get yellow perch look at, much less to bite on, goldies.
Where are the shiners?
Travis Hartman is the Lake Erie program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
He said that, while an exploding walleye population is likely consuming more baitfish, including a small amount of emerald shiners, it can’t be solely blamed for the drop in shiner population.
“The same environmental conditions that dictate yellow perch and walleye hatches also dictate baitfish hatches,” he explained. “If you look at historical records of shiner populations over the decades, they’ve been boom and bust over the recorded history of Lake Erie.”
Hartman referenced the “Freshwater Fishes of Canada,” Gordon Soules Book Publishers, 1973, in which a commercial fisherman indicated the boom and bust cycle of emeralds for the past half-century.
“It’s a species that has a high reproductive capacity, and so when conditions are right you have huge hatches and they look really strong,” he said. “And then when conditions aren’t right, they really decline for the short term.”
Population of yellow perch depends on the basin
But the yellow perch situation, so far as population numbers go overall, isn’t as bad as it seems, according to Hartman.
Lake managers divide Ohio’s waters into three basins or management units. Unit 1 is the Western Basin, from Huron to Toledo. Unit 2 of the Central Basin stretches from Huron to Fairport Harbor, and Unit 3 of the Central Basin runs from Fairport Harbor east to the Pennsylvania line.
The perch population in the Western Basin is “decent and actually increasing,” but the angler catch rate is lower than expected for that kind of population, Hartman said.
That’s not the case for Units 2 and 3, the Central Basin.
“Within the Central Basin we have the common theme of poor hatches. Both units have been poor in recent years. We’ve had a decrease in population, low hatches, and resultingly, we’re setting lower and lower catch limits as the harvests have declined,” Hartman explained.
Unit 2 has the lowest perch population since 1996, he said. The decline means U.S. and Canadian fisheries managers have slashed the total allowable catch for commercial netting operators. And while the limit of yellow perch sport anglers can catch per person per day remains at 30, anglers are rarely taking a limit from the lake.
“When you look across the lake, we have a pretty wide gradient of population trajectories, but no matter where you fish it’s the same result: angler catch rates are lower than we would predict,” Hartman said. “So that leads to ‘What’s going on? Why can’t I catch them?’”
Yellow perch dining habits changing
The answer to those questions seems to be a shift in diet for yellow perch.
“What we’ve seen in the past is they’d eat about half fish and half invertebrates, an even split,” Hartman said. “But now what we’re seeing is that about 80 percent of their diet is almost exclusively invertebrates.”
“I would argue that this was going to happen regardless of the shiners,” he added, “because what we’re seeing is with this increased abundance of all the invertebrates, the invasive water fleas and also the invasive midges and the mayflies so abundant now, the perch are doing what animals do: They’re taking the greatest return for the least effort. They’re just gorging on the abundant invertebrate resources.”
Hartman thinks it’s this change in behavior that’s impacting angler catches.
Catching yellow perch in Lake Erie used to mean dangling emerald shiners a few inches to a foot or so off the bottom. Wait half a second or a few minutes, and bam! Reel in your fish, sometimes two fish – one on each hook.
With the waning emerald shiner population, Hartman said, perch have backed off eating fish and aren’t hanging around on the bottom anymore.
And instead of congregating in larger schools, anglers and scientists believe perch are spreading out in the water column, making it more difficult to locate, hook and land them.
Poor yellow perch fishing affecting small businesses
Craig Lewis operates Erie Outfitters, a full-service bait and tackle shop in Sheffield Lake, Ohio. He said he doesn’t have emeralds in stock right now, though it’s by choice, mainly because of the poor yellow perch fishing in the Central Basin.
“With nobody perch fishing, there’s no reason to bring them in. If you’d bring them in, nobody would buy them, and they’d just die. There’s just no market,” he said.
In addition, the price is extremely high – and not just due to the emerald shiner shortage.
“Sadly, in our area, the shops that have survived on being bait stores, on fish cleaning and ice sales that perch fishing brought to the area, they’re all gone now,” Lewis said. “I’m the last one standing. We lost Hotwaters, we lost Pozzie’s, we lost Johnny’s Bait and Tackle.”
Bait wholesalers now require a much larger purchase for shiners because they’re coming to the area to deliver to a single retailer instead of a group of shops, so it’s not worth it, especially with lack of sales.
Sales for companies making accessories and tools geared toward perch fishing – like Marine Metal, which makes aerators – have plummeted. The drop also has impacted fish cleaners, sinker molders, ice delivery and more, according to Lewis.
“Without the yellow perch a lot of these places have just faded away,” Lewis said. “And on the Rocky River, Cleveland Metroparks did a wonderful job, put in six ramps and 200 parking spaces and heated bathrooms because every September to October the lot was full. It’s a perch fishing destination, not a walleye destination.
“Well, now the lot sits empty.”
Loss of Lake Erie’s family-friendly species
“Perch fishing on Lake Erie is absolutely a family affair,” Lewis said. “It’s more than a hobby, it’s a tradition. Grandfather takes son out, son takes daughter, and now daughter has kids and they want to go out perch fishing.”
Lewis said he loves eating perch and has called friends east of Cleveland inquiring about the perch. They told him to stay home.
According to long-time Marblehead resident Bob Boytim, who’s been in the fishing business for more than half a century, it’s been terrible.
“We ran a couple perch trips last season, no good. The only time it was good was the end of September and beginning of October when the water got cold. But only a few years ago it was unbelievable the perch they were bringing in,” he said. “The last two it’s been dying down. Last year was the worst.”
During the 2019 season, Boytim said his operation relied solely on golden shiners. And his fish-cleaning business was cut in half due to low perch catches by anglers.
Next word on yellow perch will come later this year
Each year, the U.S. and their Canadian counterparts conduct a total of 40 net trawls each in August to estimate the yellow perch population, including the results of the hatches from the spring spawn. The results of those surveys are used to set the next season’s TAC for both commercial and sport fishermen.
Despite the high walleye population in the lake, Hartman said he doesn’t believe it’s a major contributor to perch declines. Recent data from walleye catches indicate perch are only a small portion of walleye diets.
According to the most recent Lake Erie Yellow Perch Task Group’s research, yellow perch were virtually nonexistent in Central Basin walleye stomachs, walleye are eating mostly gizzard shad in the Central Basin, at up to 72 percent of their diets, with smelt at 7 percent, emerald shiners at just 5 percent and all other fish combined, including some yellow perch, at just 9 percent.
Similarly, in the Western Basin, walleye are eating mostly gizzard shad, at 58 percent, with yellow perch comprising only 2 percent of their diets.
Will introducing a minimum size help?
While Hartman said he’s heard anglers suggest a minimum size limit on perch, it’s probably not a good idea.
“I’d prefer people keep smaller fish because the alternative is if they get caught out in deep water, anything 30 feet or over, when you throw them back there’s a good chance they won’t survive,” he said. “The reason is these fish will have a high probability of having barotrauma response.”
Barotrauma is the result of a fast ascension from water depths, resulting in a swollen gut and bulging eyes in fish, often leading to death.
“If you put a seven-inch size limit on, I think what you’d see, more so in the Central Basin than the west, is a very high discard mortality rate. So really I’d rather see people keep the smaller perch to minimize the mortality rate.”
In addition to barotrauma, smaller yellow perch and other fish are often a target of gulls, who are known to surround fishing boats, swooping in the moment smaller fish are thrown back and plucking them from the water.
Future could be bright. Or not.
Hartman said that harsh winters with significant ice cover tend to produce better yellow perch hatches in the spring.
“They’re pretty specific to a time window in early to mid-May and spawn regardless of the weather conditions,” he said. “The type of weather we have and the plankton bloom will have an impact on survival. If the timing is right like what we’ve been seeing in the west, we could see something good in the Central Basin.”
But Hartman said it’s unusual to see a lake-wide yellow perch hatch.
“What we usually see is that whichever basin is good the other basin isn’t because conditions are so different,” he said. “We only had two years, 1996 and 2003, where they really lined up across the lake and we had great yellow perch hatches.”
Welch, who operates Fishin’ Edition Charters, said despite the perch problem, he still plans trips this year targeting them.
“I sent out flyers after the first of the year to my customers,” he said. “A lot of my guys want perch and we’ll just have to wait and see how they start behaving.”
Featured Image: A catch of yellow perch aboard a Fishin’ Edition Charters boat, Photo courtesy of Adam Welch