Moving out with the first yellow perch

OUTDOORS

March 08, 1994|By PETER BAKER

A few successive warm days early in March bring fishermen out to creeks and river heads on the East- ern Shore where yellow perch fishing is allowed. The trick is to figure where the perch will be moving and when.

In a normal year, when water temperatures reach about 38 degrees, the yellow perch school in deep holes of Chesapeake tributaries and prepare for their spawning runs upstream.

And even though this has not been a normal year, on Sunday we set out to the Shore in search of Perca flavescens with a handful of jig heads and one-inch grubs and a box of small spinners.

Our first stop was the dam at Tuckahoe State Park. The word over the past week was that the water below the dam held the promise of chain pickerel, crappie and scanty numbers of small yellow perch, and it seemed worth a look.

In the lake above the dam, a half dozen boats and about a dozen fishermen worked the opposite shoreline and sunken timber. With a new fish ladder operating through the dam, that shoreline may hold promise later this month -- and perhaps even greater promise in years to come.

In general terms, yellow perch move upstream on their spawning runs until their passage is obstructed, and then the females deposit strings of gelatinous eggs among underwater vegetation or submerged branches. The males fertilize the eggs immediately and then the adults head downstream. Within a month or so the eggs hatch.

The fish ladder on the Tuckahoe has opened 80 acres of potentially good spawning habitat, and that might greatly improve a perch stream that already is under a 9-inch minimum below the dam.

But on Sunday, in the words of an amateur hydrologist who put his size 7 into the creek, the Tuckahoe was "colder than ice water."

The creek also was very high, with no more than 18 inches between the top of the dam and the water surface in the basin below, where normally there would have been a drop of three feet or more.

Downstream, after walking in from the Horseshoe Road parking area, the creek was 8 or 10 inches over its banks, and running fast and muddy -- and after an hour or so we packed it in, having not had a hit from a perch or even a pickerel.

We were, as expected, ahead of the season on this creek, at least. Perhaps as many as two weeks early, given the high water, the effects of ice and snow melt and mean daily temperatures that still ranged near 40 degrees.

Biologically, the optimum water temperature for the yellow perch spawn runs from roughly 46 to 52 degrees, and the fish make short work of their responsibilities and quickly flee the creek heads.

If you are hunting Perca flavescens, take along a water thermometer, try to fish clear water along the northwest and west shorelines with dark bottoms and evidence of early vegetation -- and be prepared to release most of the fish you catch.

The northwest and west shorelines will warm first because of the angle of the sun in spring, and a dark bottom will absorb heat and enhance the warming process.

Through management programs and habitat improvement, yellow perch are making a slow comeback from a low point in the mid-1980s, but the spring spawning runs still are not what they once were.

These days there still are size limits and river closures to protect yellow perch during their recovery.

The average yellow perch runs 5 to 8 inches, and in the tidal sections of most rivers open to yellow perch fishing the minimum is 8 1/2 inches. In the systems of the Choptank, Wye and Patuxent rivers, the minimum is 9 inches. The creel limit is 5 per day.

By way of comparison, the commercial landings of yellow perch in Maryland were estimated at more than 1 million pounds in the 1880s. In 1985, Maryland landings had dropped to 43,000 pounds.

Maryland rivers whose tidal sections are closed to yellow perch fishing are the Chester, Magothy, Miles, Patapsco, Severn, South, West and Nanticoke.

Small spinners such as the Mepps panfish assortment will work well, as will half-inch spoons or eighth-ounce jig heads and dark colored, one-inch grubs and dressed shad darts. Live baits include one-inch sections of night crawler or minnows less than 2 inches long on No. 2 to No. 6 hooks.

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