By Tom Schlichter
What is it about white perch that make them such a favorite of Long Island’s winter angling enthusiasts? Surely, part of the attraction centers around their availability, being that these are one of the few willing local species found within casting distance of the shore throughout the colder months.
Still, there’s more to it, I think. When thoughts of perching start to rumble through my head I get enthused over the possibility of fast action yet I’m equally enthralled with the challenge of finding the pugnacious little monsters. As any local white perch veteran will tell you, these fish might occupy any of their usual hotspots such as Mill Basin, Santapogue Creek (aka, Taco Bell Creek,) Connetquot River, Carmans River, Nissequogue River or the tidal creeks that trickle into Mecox Bay one week and simply vanish the next. In other words, it’s never quite a sure thing.
Ofen, too, there is the ferocity factor – or lack of same on certain days. When white perch are in a feeding mood they’ll smack spinners, jigs, small balsa or plastic plugs and light-weight spoons. When the bite grows tough, usually during periods of prolonged cold or when the sh are heavily pressured, three-inch segments of night crawler, small live killies, shiners or grass shrimp baits may be needed to ignite their interest.
The possibility of sight fishing is yet another point that draws me into this game as these fish will sometimes school in shallow water near the head of a creek or just below a dam separating brackish water from fresh. At these times it is possible to stalk the pods and cast to them using the long wand and a scud, shrimp or small, sparse epoxy minnow pattern.
Diminutive cousins of striped bass, white perch (Morone Americana) in our brackish waters can grow to over 17 inches and nearly 3 pounds but typically measure 6 to 10 inches and weigh in at three-quarters- of-a-pound to a pound- and-a-half. Easy to identify, they have silvery flanks with a darker back, small teeth and a slightly projecting lower jaw. Their dorsal fins are separated and their anal fin possesses three strong spines. Their range covers Nova Scotia to the Carolinas, but they are most numerous from eastern Long Island to Chesapeake Bay. Semi-anadromous, they migrate to tidal fresh and slightly brackish waters during the colder months where they’ll spawn later in the spring from March through early June. Males usually mature by age two and females by age three, with females producing from 50,000 – 150,000 eggs over a period of two to three weeks. No flash in the pan, these fish typically live for eight to ten years. That means big fish have been around for a while, a point to be seriously considered if you creel more than a couple as it takes years to replace the biggest ones.
Despite the challenges associated with working up some winter whites, it’s important to not over-think the process. Basically, these are saltwater pan sh and, while being aware of their quarks, you should treat them as such. Start by probing known hot spots, looking for primary pools, dam areas, eddies or the deeper side of a twist in a tidal creek to test the waters. As with many species of fish that inhabit shallow environs, expect the perch to bite best early and late in the day and to show a preference for overcast skies over bluebird days. In areas of significant tidal influence, the start of outgoing water o en produces best, although the bottom of the tide shouldn’t necessarily be discounted as it pockets the sh when water draws down.
Of course, it helps to be a little creative during your prospecting. Kayak paddlers and jon boat fans, for instance, have a clear advantage over landlubbers because they have access to more water. Still, methodically probing openings along river banks and tidal creeks at road ends, parklands, open lots and other access points can result in some pretty impressive catches even for those who search on foot.
Look for the perch and an occasional school bass to hold in the deepest creek water you can find. Often this will be where creeks bend or pinch and a small swath of bottom is carved away by the current. Don’t overlook bridges and culverts as being possible honey holes and any pocket where you catch school stripers in early spring is worth investigating. Above all, don’t be overwhelmed with all the possibilities of where the perch can be found. Pick a spot or two, get some lines in the water, and give each potential honey hole a serious try before moving onto the next possibility.
Rigging for white perch works best when simple. If opting for bait instead of lures, use a standard bottom rig with a one-quarter-ounce bell sinker and a size four, pre-snelled beak-style hook tied six to ten inches above the weight. You can cast this rig as far as you’ll ever need with six- to ten- pound test lines on spinning setup suited to freshwater bass or trout fishing. Half a night crawler works great for bait. If you prefer greater challenge, opt for four- to six-pound test line and a small spinner or one-eighth-ounce jig-head sporting a small curly tailed grub. Tip the jig with a piece of worm or, if you can find them along a local bulkhead, a single fresh grass shrimp.
White perch action is already off to a solid start this year, so there’s no time like the present to get out and give them a try. Remember, it is possible to put a serious hurt on the perch population by removing too many so don’t get greedy. There is no shame in letting the small ones go or even in putting back some of the bigger, egg-laden breeders that you’ll catch over the next few months. Many anglers, in fact, release all they catch.
By Tom Schlichter