By Howard Meyerson
Grand Rapids, MI – Lake Michigan fish managers see more than a glimmer of hope for perch fishing in the future. A large crop of young perch appeared in late-summer netting efforts all around the lake.
“I am confident we will see an increase in the adult perch population in a couple of years,” said Dave Clapp, manager for the Michigan DNR’s Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station. “Indiana said it was the second best year of perch trawling ever. They saw a couple of thousand perch per hour (of effort). Michigan’s trawl was not as good, but we do have a decent year-class. Our count was half of what we saw in 2010, the last big year-class. We got maybe 200-300 perch per hour (in 2015).”
Perch are a popular sport fish when they are available. Fun to fish, tasty as table fare, they are readily pursued without fancy equipment or a large boat. Michigan anglers caught 335,000 perch annually on average in Michigan waters between 2005 and 2014, according to Clapp. The fishery peaked in the mid-1980s and early 1990’s. Anglers then often harvested over a million fish annually in Michigan waters, and close to 2 million perch in 1995.
What changed, Clapp said, is the ecology of the lake. Zebra and quagga mussels arrived and altered the system, reducing the amount of available food for young perch, among other things.
“The 80’s were a unique time,” Clapp explained. “We don’t have records of having more perch in the lake at any other time. The ecosystem changing has something to do with (the following decline).”
Lake Michigan perch numbers improved in 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2010, when larger year-classes were produced, according to a 2015 Perch Status Report produced for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission Lake Michigan Committee. Michigan anglers also harvested more perch in the years that followed occasionally 700,000 to 800,000 or more, according to Clapp.
“Nationwide, that’s what we see perch do. They produce a good year-class and then do not produce another for two or three years. We see it in the Great Lakes and inland waters,” Clapp said.
The 2015 fall netting efforts produced an abundance of 2-inch and 3-inch perch fingerlings. Those fish were produced in 2015. They will show up in the catch between 2017 and 2019. They are the product of the last big year-class in 2010, which produced more spawners, according to Clapp. There are also fewer alewives in Lake Michigan.
“Adult alewives will each perch larvae. We documented that in Lake Erie in the 1980’s,” Clapp said. “That has some effect. Both also eat zooplankton. There is competition for that food.
“The 2010 year-class is now five years old and we have more spawners. Perch can be mature at 2 years of age, but by 4 years old or 5 years old, they are fully mature. And the weather this past spring was warmer than we’ve had, which gave us a break. I’m confident we’ll see an increase. In the past it’s been 30 percent to 40 percent.”
Jay Wesley, the DNR’s Lake Michigan Basin coordinator said the findings are “exciting.”
“It’s great that we saw a really good year class and we’re anxious to see if they make it through the winter and recruit into the fishery,” Wesley said. “There will be challenges for them finding enough to eat and they will be prey until they are big enough.
“But they are being seen everywhere. Assessments in each state (around Lake Michigan) found them. And Lake Huron, Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie all saw good perch year-classes.”
© 2015 Howard Meyerson
Appears in Michigan Outdoor News.