State DNR still waiting on a perch boom
Written by St. Joseph Herald Palladium   
Wednesday, 15 April 2009 11:20
Last year looked as if it might provide some of the best Lake Michigan perch fishing on record. Sparked by the huge 2005 year class, the largest ever recorded, there seemed to be so many perch in the lake, it looked like all anyone would need would be buckets to lift them into the boat.

Then reality hit. To be sure, there were lots of days when limit catches were made, but also many days when catches came up well short of expectations. Michigan anglers caught 353,660 perch last year, which was up from 226,386 in 2007. But it was just a fraction of the more than 2 million perch taken in 1994, the end of the perch boom.

But from Saugatuck to the Indiana border, the catch increased from 180,000 in 2007 to 200,000 last year. Those totals included 81,400 perch at South Haven, the highest of any port, and 51,920 at St. Joseph.

"The catch rates were actually good but the (fishing) effort on the lake was the lowest we've ever recorded," said Dave Clapp, a perch researcher at the Department of Natural Resource's Charlevoix Research Station.

"People that did get out had pretty good catch rates."

Perch fishermen spent about 134,000 hours on the lake, down from 193,000 hours in 2007 and 215,000 in 2006. Since the weather was normal, the speculation is a combination of high gas prices (up to $4 per gallon) and the poor economy kept many perch fishermen home, although the effect would seem to be more profound for trout and salmon anglers, who burn a lot of fuel trolling.

A contributing factor in the relatively small perch catch appears to have been a slower growth rate.

"It has a lot to do with the abundance," Clapp said. "We tend to see when there's a lot of perch around the growth rate is slower."

That's because more fish are competing for the same food. It generally takes perch about three to four years to reach 8 inches.

"We saw chinook salmon with a lot of little perch in their stomachs," Clapp said.

What about fishing this year?

"It should be improving," Clapp said. "We've got a lot of 2005 fish out there that haven't contributed to the fishery."

About 55 percent of the perch in Lake Michigan are from the 2005 year class.

They'll be joined by a very strong 2006 year class.

"We haven't had much reproduction the last two years," Clapp said.

There are several factors which influence spawning success.

"A big one is plankton levels when they hatch," he said. "If you have good plankton levels when fish are a month old, it really improves survival."

Strong winds also create upwellings which increase nutrients and warm weather also helps.

"There's a lot of evidence these (juvenile) fish can drift all around the lake, depending on the current patterns."

Perch numbers peaked during the mid 1980s and early 1990s and have yet to totally recover. Many states continue restrictive regulations as a result. Perch fishing on Lake Michigan is closed during July in Illinois waters. Indiana has a 15-fish limit, while only five may be taken in Wisconsin (15 in Green Bay) and fishing is closed May 1-June 15.

Michigan, where commercial perch fishing (except in Indian tribal treaty waters) is not allowed, did not suffer as steep a decline.

It maintains a liberal 35-fish limit (50 north of the 45th parallel).

Hopefully, this year there will be a lot more limits.
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