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He was nervous but polite as he attempted to stuff the bucket full of white perch into the bed of his beat-up truck.
By Charley Soares

I had been driving east down US Route 6 in Swansea when I came to the Palmer River and saw the fisherman loading his gear. I pulled into the well-defined turn-off behind him and engaged him in conversation. I’d seen this same man before fishing from the rip-rap under the 195 Bridge behind my house on the Coles River and became aware that if he was fishing, there were perch around. That man and his family were successful fishermen and bait-gatherers who sold their catch to local markets and bait shops back at the end of an era when it was still possible to scratch a living from the fat of the land. His two simple cane poles were strung with mono to which were affixed slender pencil floats with a few pinch-on sinkers just above the single gold hook on each. His container of native grass shrimp was covered in sawdust with the remnants of chopped ice on the bottom to keep the bait moist.

It was not so much the tools that made him successful, it was his skill and experience in knowing where and when to look for the first signs of white perch as they moved into local rivers. I recall some outstanding catches of those “silver bass,” which are first cousins to the striped bass, made on the Palmer, Coles and occasionally in the Lees Rivers. None of those early catches were made by me because I was a striper fisherman at the time and too busy to bother chasing down a possible catch of perch when I could cash in on reliable species such as winter flounder and inshore cod.
Well, the aforementioned species are nothing more than a fond memory, but over the past few seasons the hardy white perch have been staging a recovery and the Palmer River has been the scene of some pretty good early-spring fishing. The man with the cane poles has gone on to fish the Big River, but the numerous disciples of those cane poles and grass shrimp have been fishing the Palmer from the new Barneyville Bridge to the winding marsh area south of Route 6 and they have been making some decent catches of perch from 5-inch sub-legals to yellow-tinted jumbos that easily exceed the 8-inch minimum size currently in place in Massachusetts waters.

Last spring there were some very good catches of perch made on both sides of the Barneyville Bridge, and one chilly late-March morning while my coffee steamed my truck windshield I watched a man and his wife catch a half-dozen legal perch while tossing back two schoolies that gave their fragile tackle all it could handle. Because of the parking ban in the area of the bridge they parked their vehicle on a side road and carried their gear to the site. A friend has one of his crew drop them off at the bridge with all their gear before parking his Suburban legally nearby and joining them. Last year they caught some jumbo perch stained yellow by the tannin-colored water they winter-over in and the fish he gave me were filleted and deep fried in peanut oil for a feast like the ones the Grey Beards at the boathouse cooked up when I was their errand boy.

Both sides of Route 6 are also a good bet, and if you visit there in the spring you will usually see several cars in the turn-offs and perhaps an angler with a car-top john boat working the holes up around the 195 East Bridge. While grass shrimp are the preferred bait, they are not always available, and pieces of sea worm usually work as well.
Massachusetts regulations allow up to 25 fish over 8 inches during the year-round open season, but a quartet of “silver bass” carefully filleted, battered and fried in hot oil will delight you and your mate even on the coldest of spring days.

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