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Gold Rush! - Chesapeake Light Tackle

Ring perch, that’s what my fishing buddy Rich calls them, but considering the impact they’re having on the economy of the upper Chesapeake Bay, they might as well be called gold fish. If ever there was a Chesapeake fisheries management success story it’s what we are experiencing right now with yellow perch. As fishermen pour in from all over, posting one successful fishing report after another, it’s obvious that Maryland can proudly boast one of the best¬†perch fisheries in the United States. I don’t know about you, but I consider that one heck of an accomplishment, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should be proud.¬† Unfortunately, it wasn’t always this way.¬† For the past couple of decades yellow perch fishing has been a shadow of what it could be.¬† As of 2005 there were few limits on the commercial harvest of yellow perch.¬† Netters could set their traps almost wherever and whenever they wanted taking as many fish as they could catch.¬† Almost all our Maryland fish were sold outside the state.¬† The only benefit to our economy was in lining the pockets of a few¬†commercial fishermen. In 2008, that all changed.

Calling yellow perch “the people’s fish,” concerned recreational anglers in conservation groups like the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) have been busy for decades trying to convince lawmakers that yellow perch can be managed better. (Click to see a summary of CCA’s 2008 position.) Guided by provisions in a bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly, DNR biologists and managers met with scientists, recreational anglers and commercial watermen throughout 2008 to discuss a new population assessment and develop new management strategies that would allow for continued harvest and allow for growth in tidal yellow perch populations. About a year ago, the¬†Department released new regulations designed to ensure sustainable yellow perch populations and create new opportunities for recreational yellow perch fishing. The new guidelines took effect on January 26, 2009.¬† Almost immediately, recreational anglers started catching more and bigger fish.¬†¬†A new, world-class winter fishery was born!

I’m sure the nickname ring perch comes from yellow perch’s distinctive dark vertical stripes and yellow body color, but after my fishing trip¬†Sunday, I can think of another reason to call them that – it’s because we had to drive a ring around the upper Bay to catch them! Anxious to get in on the action we had been hearing about, Rich and I hitched up Thunder Road Sunday morning about 11:00 AM and drove north up the Eastern Shore in search of a place to launch.

By water, it’s about 40 miles from my house on Kent Island to the Susquehanna Flats and the perching grounds at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.¬† Since the wind wasn’t blowing and it was relatively flat, I considered launching at Kent Narrows and making the run up by boat. I’ve done that before, and it isn’t bad, but the weather forecast called for building winds in the evening, so I thought it better to trailer the boat north.¬† My plan was to launch at the small boat ramp in Betterton, Maryland at the mouth of the Sassafras River.

After an uneventful drive, we arrived in Betterton in less than an hour only to find very low water and¬†thick chunks of ice blocking the ramp.¬† I gave it a valiant effort anyway, breaking both my trailer tail lights in the process, but there was no getting out.¬† We headed north to Turner’s Creek only to find it iced in solid. This led to a marathon session of checking every eastern shore boat ramp we knew of, only to find them all inaccessible.¬† Our only choice was to round the head of the Bay and make the turn south back down the western shore.¬† I made some cell phone calls to some fishing buddies and finally decided our best bet was to drive all the way back down to Perryville and put in at the Owens Landing ramp.

By the time we got the boat in the water at 3:00 PM the sun was already getting low over the Susquehanna Valley. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go far from the ramp to find fish.¬† In fact, we only had to go a few feet.¬† Just as we cleared the dock we noticed nice marks on the fish finder along a twenty-five to fifty foot drop off.¬† There was one other boat fishing and a couple of guys casting out of kayaks who I recognized from some fishing trips around the Bay Bridge. After our all-day ordeal looking for a place to launch, it was comforting to see some familiar faces and even more encouraging to see that everyone was catching fish.¬† We hurriedly tied up some double drop-shot rigs and got busy. (Click diagram for more detail.)

I spent some time Saturday night questioning everyone I knew about the best techniques for yellow perch fishing in deep water.¬† Everyone I talked to recommended drop-shotting.¬† It’s just a basic rig with a sinker on the bottom and a couple of jigs¬†tied above on dropper loops. You fish it by either casting out a little way, or dropping straight down, then keeping a tight line with the sinker right on the bottom and the lures suspended.¬† We tied number four snelled hooks onto our loops and attached brown and chartreuse twister tail grubs.

We started catching fish right away in depths between thirty and fifty feet. All we really needed to do was let the sinker drag across the bottom behind the slowly drifting boat. Occasionally we would pick the sinker up off the bottom a little, then set it back down, the slower the better. The fish didn’t hit hard.¬† In some cases we didn’t feel the bite at all, only weight on the line as they picked up our grubs. Some of the fish we caught had small baitfish hanging out of their mouths.¬† On closer examination I found that one healthy female had a four inch catfish lodged in her throat.¬† These are hungry fish!

We fished until sunset loading our cooler with plenty of fat ten to fourteen inch perch.  I decided the fishing was so good I want to come back soon, so we made some calls and made arrangements to rent some space at the marina so I could leave my boat.  After I got home tonight I filleted some of the fish we caught, sprinkled them with olive oil, Old Bay, and Panko crumbs and baked them. They were delicious.

After dinner I sat down with my computer¬†and filed a yellow perch survey report about the fish we caught.¬† The yellow perch survey is an important part of the management plan.¬†(Click here to see the survey form.)¬†As I was typing in the details of our trip I reflected on the events of the day and wondered if our conservation organizations, lawmakers, and fisheries managers realize all the good they are doing for this part of Maryland.¬†I hope they do.¬† I believe Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay has the potential to be one of the foremost fishing destinations in the world.¬† We’re sitting on an economic gold mine that could easily be realized if our native species are managed toward recreational fishing.

Can you imagine the economic and social benefits we would see if striped bass, flounder, and trout were managed like the¬†perch are now¬†in the upper Bay?¬† Maybe it’s corny, but I can¬†envision the Chesapeake Bay¬†as a fishing Disneyland with the state’s tourism industry booming like¬†an Alaska gold rush as anglers pour in from all corners of the world.¬†Let’s hope our fisheries managers keep making these kinds of good¬†decisions. If you run into¬†one of your state representatives, someone from DNR, or a CCA member, say thanks, and if you¬†get a chance this winter I hope you’ll¬†join the rush by making a trip to the upper Bay¬†to give the golden perch a shot. The opportunity to experience the birth of a world-class fishery doesn’t come often.

Posted Monday, January 3rd, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Gold Rush!”

  1. Rivercat says:

    +1 on making rockfish, flounder and trout gamefish and cutting off the commercial guys. Nicely written article! I need to make 2011 the year that I take a crack at these gorgeous fish and try a couple in the skillet.

    Thanks for writing,


  2. Shawn says:

    Thanks, Don. I’m not saying we should cut out commercial fishing altogether, just hoping policies can be nudged so that we are managing the Chesapeake with an eye toward the vastly superior economic and cultural benefits of recreational fishing.

  3. steve hawk says:

    these fish seem to be late this year we caught them in early December last year any good reason

  4. Bill Houghton says:

    Hey Shawn, I can not believe how this fishery has come back in this short time, given the right restrictions on the comms….. I just hope the positive publicity, and the hundreds of fisherman taking 10 fish limits doesn’t end up having a negitive impact.

  5. Tim Campbell says:

    Great article Shawn. Like Marty Gary told me,”The key to the future of yellow perch in Maryland is conservative fishing for both sides.” As a marine biologist, Marty predicts the fishing could be even more phenominal in four or five years with the steady expansion of the fishery.

  6. Creig says:

    Beautiful creatures! Caught one here last week. Rare to get more than a few in one trip though. Kudos to the Maryland DNR on their successful management. I heard they were tasty as well. Guessin’ you got proof of that. Hate to hear about all of the launching problems. Good change of pace though (perching), especially in the “down” time!

  7. Blue Marlin says:

    I got to get in on that action. A big hats off to everyone involved for bringing the perch back to the Bay. If we could only do this with rockfish.

  8. Alan J. says:

    Thanks for the drop shot diagram. I clicked on it and magnified it to see it better. Can you get them just by casting lead head jigs

  9. Shawn says:

    Alan, yes you can. I just heard from my friend Rick who caught them on small swimbaits yesterday in shallower water.

  10. Jeremy Gussient says:

    One thing we can do is make sure we fill out the survey reports, and only take the fish we need leaving the others to spawn. This is the same strategy we should use for stripers. If we I as recreational anglers show some responsibility with this new fishing privilege it could go a long way in convincing those in charge that they should be managing for recreational benefits. Thank you for such a fine article and website.

  11. Jerry Norris says:

    Welcome to the north bay. As Marty said, the fishing will only get better as more fish are spawned and the current 12-13 inchers grow a few more years. Look forward to seeing you on the river. Poke around a little bit up there and you might find some walleye as well.


  12. Colin Crozier says:

    Nice report, beautiful pics! Thanks, Colin

  13. Bill says:

    Great article. I am new to the area. Are these fish in the Hart Miller area?
    Thanks again!!

    • Shawn says:

      Bill, they are farther north just where the Bay meets the Susquehanna and in some of the deeper holes on the upper side of the Susquehanna Flats. Right now, I think you need at 20-25 feet of water (at least) and low salinity. When we get closer to spring they will move shllower. We found them in 20′ yesterday which was nice. If time, and ice permits I hope to fish some of the rivers closer to home soon, but finding the right combination of depth and salinity will be challenging.

  14. John says:

    Sorry about the launching issues but, glad to see you get on the Neds.

    As others have said if the fine folks in charge of our natural resources watch the economic impact this is having on this area logic would say let’s manage other species in this way.

    Shawn if you need a place to hang out this spring for the run up here I know a place :-).

  15. woody says:

    Shawn are we going to get out fishing before I leave for Tenn.

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