There’s nothing like targeting, finding and catching hard fighting, scrappy fish, close to home, that serve as both a great light tackle gamefish and a delicious palate pleaser when winter is coming to a close.
Winter doldrums get the best of anglers, and light tackle enthusiasts tend to scratch the days off their calendar until ice out and the trout opener, just to wet a line and bend the rod. But somewhere in between those dates as the weather warms, a great fishery is evolving for the light-tackle-toting panfish enthusiast, and that’s fishing the brackish backwaters, in tidal rivers and estuaries, for the ever-present white perch.
Basically a pint sized striped bass without stripes, white perch feed voraciously, put up a great fight and are great to eat.
When I was in middle and high school, local waters in and around the Toms and Metedeconk rivers had great spring white perch runs. The fish would school up, start moving when the water warmed a bit, and would be readily available to both land based anglers and boat anglers alike by fishing the bottom with bloodworms, fishing grass shrimp under a bobber, or fishing soft plastics or spinners in areas where the fish were visible or were known to be. The fishing was generally good, and we always walked away with at least a few fish for our efforts.
But as time has gone on, the fisheries in these rivers has waned a bit, and other places in the state, both to the north and to the south, and down into Delaware and Maryland still have a marvelous perch fishery that’s worth its weight in gold and silver.
As is the case with many “niche” fisheries, white perch fishing takes some special preparation, some careful recon of the spots you want to fish, and some great local knowledge that can help you bend the rod more and put a few more fish in the cooler.
While the perch fishery becomes more popular with anglers as you head into the lower half of New Jersey and into the DELMARVA, many of these same techniques can be applied in tidal areas to the north as well.
Local Intel & the Right Bait
Firsthand, local knowledge from sharpies is the key in any fishing application. Having been “removed” from the perch game for some 20 years, I recently sought out the expertise of a local perch guru, Mitch Brown from Chestnut Neck Boatyard and Marina in Port Republic who gave me some great local intel on perch fishing in South Jersey, and beyond. Mitch fishes for perch as much as he can locally in the Mullica River and its tributaries, but also fishes other rivers and estuaries including the Bass River and surrounding waters and creeks. With all of his time spent chasing these great fighting and eating panfish, he is well-known to his peers.
According to Mitch, this is typically a mid to late April through December fishery. Early in the season, the fish are upriver, and start working their way downriver as the water warms. Fish can be caught through the ice, however the best fishing starts when the water starts to warm and the fish become more active.
For tackle, an ultra light spinning rod is employed, and the rigs that are used are simple high low rigs with small baitholder hooks and just enough lead to hold bottom. Mitch typically uses red or yellow beads on his rigs, just ahead of the hooks, for an extra attractant for the perch. Bait is relatively simple, and Mitch prefers using small pieces of bloodworms, and when he can get them, bits of shedder crab or grass shrimp. He stressed that the baits must be kept small, and they should cover the hook. Fresh bait is a necessity, and care must be kept in keeping those baits fresh.
Artificials can also work well if the fish are up in the water column, and Mitch recommends an old fashioned Mepps spinner or an inline spinner. Personally, I’ve had lots of success in my neck of the woods using a silver fox inline spinner; once you find the school and they want to eat, they will feed voraciously!
Find Your Perch Spot
Locating perch is also a big part of this game. Perch tend to school up, and when you find one, you will most likely find many of them. In the boat, Mitch likes to go to likely areas, typically tidal flats or deep holes, looking for fish on the depthfinder. Once he finds them and reads them well, he’ll drop anchor and begin working the area with the hi-lo rigs and bait. Typically if they’re there and they want to chew, they will chew right away, and you will know when you’ve found a nice pile.
On a typical day, Mitch said he boats somewhere between 30 and 50 keepers, keeping only perch over 7 inches. Plenty of jumbos are caught, depending on the season, but the fishing is generally pretty good and fishing on the inside it stays consistent through the season.
Land-based spots are also an option, as there are many areas in the aforementioned rivers and creeks that provide land access to excellent perch fishing. Fishing near bridges, bulkheads, or any access to a channel, channel edge, or tidal hole in tidal water from land, can put you into the perch using the same methods as described above. Fan casting with bait rigs and slowly working them back to the bulkhead can not only find you some fish, but can also put some fish in your bucket.
As I mentioned, white perch are quite populous up and down the east coast, and can be caught from small bodies of water to large bodies of water. Areas in North Jersey include the Hackensack River system, the Passaic River, the Raritan, and all of their tributaries, which can produce good perch catches, as can the Hudson River. In Central Jersey look towards the Manasquan and Toms, while farther south hit the Mullica, Great Egg Harbor, Maurice or Cohansey rivers and tributaries.
Brackishness & Bycatch
Keep in mind that some of the best perch fishing on the east coast takes place in the estuaries, creeks, rivers, and tributaries that run off the Chesapeake Bay. As long as you have tidal, salt-to-brackish then to freshwater you can find white perch.
By catch can vary greatly. Down in the Chesapeake, a good friend of mine “Chief” Bey has had great days fishing the Chesapeake Bay proper, boating jumbo perch by the hundreds, while also catching jumbo spot, croakers, and even keeper striped bass. Down where Chief fishes the fishery is more of a true saltwater fishery; yet head towards the upper Chesapeake and the water becomes more brackish so other species, like catfish mix in. Again the methods are similar as anglers use hi-lo rigs baited with the aforementioned baits.
In New Jersey where the brackish fishery sometimes turns into a freshwater fishery early in the season, you will see the extremely tasty yellow perch mix in, as well as other familiar freshwater fish that are out and about early in the season. Up the Delaware and along major river estuaries along the coast, you’ll often find schoolie striped bass mix in regularly with your perch catch.
This is a great fishery, and it’s a great way to shake off the rust from winter’s doldrums. This is also a great fishery for kids to get involved, and get them out of the house after a long, cold winter.
Please enjoy the fishery, harvest what you intend to use, and go out and have a blast!
|KEEPIN’ & EATIN’|
White perch are hard fighting, scrappy panfish that put a bend into any trout rod, and make for a great fish fry. With no regulations on white perch in most marine areas, it’s easy to become gluttonous and take a lot more fish than you really intend on utilizing. So please, only keep what you will use, and let the spawning females do their thing and spawn so that this fishery can be sustained.
Many years ago, when I was fishing the Toms River, I kept a few perch for dinner, and there was an older gentleman that pointed that fact out to me, and it has stuck with me ever since. These fish, similar to our beloved striped bass, are unique as they are partially anadromous (born in freshwater, but can live in the salt) and their presence should be appreciated, recognized, and not taken for granted.
– Capt. Allen