Perca flavescens, the yellow perch, is the Rodney Dangerfield of freshwater fish. Despite their beautiful bright yellow colors with iridescent dark green vertical stripes and orange fins, their aggressive feeding, strong fighting for their size, excellent texture and flavor on the plate, they just don’t get much respect.
I remember ice fishing on Deer Lake in Polk County, catching some good-sized perch and picking some up off the ice that had been discarded that day by other anglers. Some of my musky fishing friends call those of us who fish for panfish “perch-jerkers.” I’m happy to be one.
Yellow perch is one of the most widely distributed fish species in North America. They are native east of the Rocky Mountains in the Arctic, Upper Mississippi and Atlantic drainages. They are prey to many species of fish and fish-eating birds. They are a favorite of those of us who grew up in the Great Lakes area where we still dine on yellow perch for our Friday night fish fries.
Some of my favorite boyhood outings were fishing trips on Lake Erie. We often fished off the rock break walls of harbors near Cleveland where we mostly caught yellow perch. We would also catch a variety of fish species including smelt, white bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish and the ubiquitous sheepshead (freshwater drum).
When we fished in the western end of Lake Erie over the limestone reefs among the Bass Islands, we caught plenty of smallmouth bass and walleyes but our main prey was yellow perch. We caught lots of them over a foot long. I recall long evenings scaling and filleting perch that became the guests of honor at Friday night fish fries.
Yellow perch are schooling fish and aggressive feeders. When you can catch one you can often catch a bunch of them. There’s not a lot of subtlety involved in kids fishing for perch. We would fish with level-wind reels loaded with braided line, tapered steel rods, spark plugs for sinkers, spreader rigs, three snelled hooks and emerald shiners for bait. Fishing straight down over the side of the boat, we would lower the bait rig to the bottom, reel up a few turns and hang on. We often caught double-headers of perch and sometimes the heavy triple-header with a sheepshead.
Around here, I have been delighted to catch jumbo (over 10-inch-long) perch in several lakes in Polk County and in the Mississippi River. The economically important commercial and sport fishery for yellow perch in Lake Michigan was decimated by invasion of zebra and quagga mussels in the 1990s. The mussels filter out the zooplankton that young-of-year yellow perch feed on, resulting in many years of poor recruitment. The Lake Michigan perch fishery has yet to recover.
These are the good old days for catching perch in the Mississippi River along the Wisconsin and Minnesota border. Last weekend, a friend and I were fishing in Pool 4 downstream from Nelson near the outlet of Big Lake. We caught some fine yellow perch between 10 and 12 inches long with bright colors. A cool front blew in, the rain started but the perch kept biting. We got pretty wet getting back to the landing at Wabasha, Minnesota, but it was worth it to catch those big perch. They became some fine dining.
Dan Wilcox writes a periodic column. Send comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.