- Popular Great Lakes sport species
- Commercial species, ranking third in revenues
- Reduced catch limits due to population fluctuations
One of the most popular panfish in Michigan waters, perch can be caught through the ice, from small boats, and from piers and docks using a variety of small baits and lures. However, Great Lakes perch populations are facing a variety of challenges, and in many areas perch fishing is not what it used to be.
Larval perch are tiny, transparent creatures that have a difficult time surviving in open waters of the Great Lakes. After absorbing their yolk sac, perch larvae must begin feeding on tiny zooplankters or starve to death. They are at the mercy of lake currents that can carry them miles offshore, sometimes bringing them into food-rich areas and sometimes leaving them in cold, sterile waters where survival may not be possible. Larval perch are also easy prey for non-native, plankton-eating fish like alewife and rainbow smelt.
Even if perch do manage to find plankton and grow to fingerling size, they still face challenges. Young perch are on the menu for a variety of predatory fish including walleye and northern pike — and in some areas birds like double-crested cormorants can take a heavy toll.
Adult perch size depends on growth rate, food availability and population density. In some inland lakes, perch overpopulate and become stunted. Stunted perch do not reach a size large enough to attract anglers, but this is usually not a problem in Great Lakes waters where predators are plentiful.
Perch are generalists, meaning that they eat most anything that is available. Young perch begin feeding on zooplankton and soon switch to bottom-dwelling insects like larval midges. As they grow, juvenile perch have more and more food options available. Large perch eat minnows, scuds, aquatic insects and now even invasive species like quagga mussels and round goby.
To compensate for low survival rates, yellow perch produce large quantities of eggs. This means that even small populations of perch can rebound quickly if conditions are good. Managers have lowered bag limits in attempts to protect large spawners, but stocking is not used as a management tool on the Great Lakes.
Research is an important first step in determining the cause of perch population issues. Since perch at different life stages are susceptible to a variety of threats, it can be very difficult to determine the exact cause of a decline. In many instances, a combination of factors — including the natural variability in weather conditions and water temperature — can be implicated.
Several Great Lakes perch fisheries have been studied, with different answers emerging for different locations. For example, on Saginaw Bay, perch recruitment (survival to the juvenile stage) increased after alewife crashed, but walleye also increased. Predatory walleye now eat so many small perch that few reach a size large enough for anglers to target.
On Lake Michigan, perch were an abundant and popular panfish during the 1980s, but numbers declined in the 1990s. Now perch recruitment is very low in most years, but an occasional good year continues to provide decent fishing at southern Lake Michigan ports. A variety of factors conspire to reduce the chances of good recruitment in any given year. These can include the presence of invasive species like quagga mussel and alewife, but research suggests that there is no single factor that is responsible for the decline.
Importance to Fishery
Catching perch is often as simple as finding them —it’s the finding them that can be a challenge. Perch often travel in large schools of similar-sized fish, so once a school is located, the action is often fast. Light tackle helps to detect soft bites, and perch are expert bait-stealers. Tiny teardrop jigs tipped with waxworms are popular in winter, and small minnows on a two-hook spreader rig are commonly used in open water.
Although other fish grow bigger and fight harder, the appeal of perch lies in their quality as table fare and their accessibility. Simple and inexpensive tackle is all that is required to catch perch, and because they are often found close to shore, large boats are not needed to reach productive water.