Yellow Perch: Fishing the spawning run
by Paul Piavis

Best Looking in its Class
Perca flavescens - sometimes called yellow neds or ring perch - are members of the perch family, which also includes darters and walleye. Named for their golden-yellow body, these perch have large green vertical bands and orange fins that become especially brilliant during breeding season.

Prized as table fare and for their willingness to take both artificial and natural bait, yellow perch generally weigh between 8 and 24 ounces. The largest yellow perch taken from Maryland tidal waters by a recreational angler weighed in at 2.2 pounds, and was caught in Marsh Creek by Niles Pethel of Grasonville in 1979.

Yellow perch have been widely introduced outside their native range which runs from South Carolina to the Canadian Maritimes, west to Saskatchewan and south to Missouri.

In Maryland, yellow perch are found in both freshwater and the tidal regions of Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In general, most yellow perch remain in the same watershed their entire life, but it is not known if they return to the same small tributaries each year to spawn.

The Spawn is On In the Chesapeake Bay region, yellow perch begin to congregate during early winter and overwinter in schools in deeper areas at river mouths. January and February see the yellow perch begin to move upstream en masse for spawning. Spawning then takes place from the tidal freshwater interface and into freshwater sections of tributaries as long as no blockages impede migration.

Yellow perch spawning begins when water temperatures approach 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Interestingly, a chill period is needed for proper egg development within the ovaries, and research indicates that females require a few months of water temperature below 45 degrees for final egg maturation and yolk development.

Once the eggs are developed and water temperature and photoperiod (the amount of sunlight required for normal growth and maturity) are correct, females lay eggs in a gelatinous strand. Depending on her size, a single female may contain from 3,000 to 150,000 eggs. Eggs are fertilized by males as the strand is extruded onto underwater structures such as tree limbs or pilings.

After fertilization, the eggs are on their own; in contrast to other pan fish and bass, which aggressively defend their nests from other fish and amphibian predators, there is no caring for eggs by the parent perch.

Egg development from fertilization to hatching is greatly influenced by water temperature. At 46 degrees eggs hatch in 27 days; at 61 degrees, hatching time decreases to 13 days, with an optimum rate of warming for development of 0.9 degrees per day.

Larval yellow perch are distributed throughout creek channels and filter feed on plankton until they reach the juvenile stage, approximately one inch in length. At this point, juveniles migrate to near-shore areas and feed on small invertebrates and plankton.

By the end of the first year, yellow perch may measure from three to five inches in length. As they grow and mature, their diet shifts to larger invertebrates, other fish, and even others of their own species.

In Search of Perch
In the Chesapeake Bay region, we are blessed with some of the faster growing perch populations: most female yellow perch reach legal size in three to four years; males take slightly longer.

Most of the Maryland's recreational and commercial yellow perch harvest occurs during the spawning run when perch are congregated in schools. The late winter or early spring spawning run gives anglers the first opportunity to take to the streams for fast-action fishing.

Adding to the popularity of yellow perch is the fact that expensive equipment is not needed for a successful day of fishing. A boat, global positioning system, and expensive tackle are not prerequisites for catching some yellow neds. The only thing one really needs is the ability to fend off the fickle late winter weather!

A well-prepared angler would have a light action spinning rod and shad darts or small spoons tipped with grass shrimp, meal worms, minnows, or their own favorite natural bait. Success is also likely when fishing natural bait on bare hooks beneath a bobber. Hip boots may help keep feet dry and comfortable along a muddy stream bank or make retrieving snagged rigs easier, but wading for perch is not necessary.

Popular Eastern Shore fishing spots include: below the Wye Mills Dam, Queen Anne's County; Hillsboro boat ramp, Tuckahoe Creek, Talbot and Caroline counties; St. Paul's Church, Langford Creek, Kent County; and Arrington Road at U.S. Route 50, Queen Anne's County.

On the western shore, Potomac River tributaries such as Mattawoman Creek and the Wicomico River at Allen's Fresh, and the Patuxent River can offer excellent yellow perch fishing. Historically, many of the middle western shore tributaries such as Severn Run and the South, West, and Magothy rivers offered tremendous fishing; however, populations in these systems have declined and are not at the point where harvest can be allowed.

Due to these declines, the yellow perch fishery is closed to both recreational and commercial fishing in the Patapsco, Magothy, Severn, South and West rivers on the western shore as well as the Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore. Furthermore, commercial fishing is also prohibited in the Wye, Miles and Choptank rivers.

The epicenter of the commercial fishery remains the upper Chesapeake Bay. The commercial harvest was not a mainstay for watermen, but with 1980s moratoria on shad and striped bass and the decline of the oyster population, yellow perch became an increasingly important component of the commercial fishery.

Commercial yellow perch fishing is a difficult endeavor. Tending fyke or hoop nets set in the Bay and tributaries during March requires smaller open boats with outboard motors. Combine these with wind, icy decks, flowing tides and numb fingers, and one can imagine how yellow perch fishing requires a certain breed of waterman.

Assessing the status of yellow perch throughout the Chesapeake Bay region - begun in the 1980s - has also proven somewhat problematic. Because river specific data may only be collected during the spawning run, DNR biologists only have about three weeks to collect as many samples from as many systems as possible. Although we may not sample every river every year, we have excellent data from the Choptank, Nanticoke and Patuxent rivers, along with the upper Chesapeake Bay.

We are often assisted with collection efforts by watermen as we accompany them on their daily fishing. As they empty their nets we count, measure, and determine the sex of a sub-sample of yellow perch.

In addition, some fish are brought back to our labs for weighing and removal of the ear bone, a dissection that allows us to more accurately and quickly determine the age of the fish. The ear bone or otolith deposits rings of calcium as the fish ages. By counting the rings - much like a forester counts the rings on trees - we can age the fish more efficiently than by reading scale samples. The oldest yellow perch collected by DNR biologists since 1988 was a 14-year-old in the Choptank River.

In the Choptank, we have been setting and fishing our own fyke nets since 1988 when sport and commercial fisheries were closed. Here, we have been able to watch the stock slowly rebound over the years; the Choptank was reopened to recreational fishing in 1991.

In the winter of 2000 we used a large research vessel and trawled yellow perch specimens in the upper Bay and tributaries. The trawl allows us to obtain a sample independent of the fishery gear, which is valuable in determining relative abundance of younger fish and verifying population trends.

The data we collect are used to assess current mortality rates and population structure; biologists have used growth data and harvest characteristics, or selectivity, to determine population levels in the absence of fishing. Known as a spawning stock biomass (SSB) analysis, this assessment allows us to determine how much fishing the population can withstand and still preserve enough spawning stock for successful reproduction. The length and age structures of yellow perch are used to determine mortality rate and where we are relative to overfishing definitions formulated from the SSB analysis.

Strong year-classes drive the yellow perch population much like the dominant year classes that affect striped bass. Being able to determine year-class strength is very important in any stock assessment but especially for yellow perch which show drastic swings in juvenile production.

We are fortunate in that the Estuarine Juvenile Finfish Survey, commonly known as the Striped Bass Juvenile Index Survey, does an excellent job in surveying juvenile yellow perch habitat in the upper Chesapeake Bay. We have been able to select productive sites back to 1979 and formulate our own yellow perch juvenile index, derived using data from seven Upper Bay sites.

Gaining Ground Results show that juvenile yellow perch production increased dramatically in 1993 and has generally remained at high levels. Recent strong year-classes were produced in 1993, 1996 and 1998. This index is important in projecting the future size of fishable stocks and serves as an early warning of increasing or decreasing population levels.

To encourage the yellow perch's continued recovery from lower population levels, DNR has managed the species conservatively, imposing a five-fish creel limit and a 9-inch size limit for recreational anglers, maintaining the February commercial closure, and putting an 8.5- to 11-inch slot limit on commercially harvested fish to protect large females - important because the number of eggs produced increases in accordance with a female's size.

As previously mentioned, many systems are closed to commercial harvest. Our analyses indicate that these new regulations will help preserve sufficient spawning biomass to allow for increased juvenile production.

Tidal yellow perch regulations were substantively changed in 1988 in response to declining population levels. In addition to many systems being closed to all harvest, the commercial minimum size limit was increased. As stocks in many systems recovered through the late 1990s, regulations were again reevaluated and a more uniform system of size limits was adopted.

As part of this reevaluation, a Fisheries Management Plan was crafted with all interested parties playing an active part in the process. Still a work in progress, this document will serve as a template for future management plans. Biologists, conservationists, sports fishermen, and watermen agreed that habitat issues must be worked on if yellow perch populations are to return to the size and scope seen in the 1960s.

Habitat issues of concern for yellow perch include sedimentation from poorly controlled development in watersheds and the increase of impervious land (roads, parking lots, etc.) which speeds runoff and degrades channel geometry and reduces fish habitat. Sedimentation of egg strands robs the developing eggs of oxygen, and can choke the filter feeding larvae. Channelization and sedimentation have also removed spawning habitat such as fallen trees, limbs and vegetation, which yellow perch need to lay their eggs on and juvenile perch need to hide from predators.

The challenge for managers is now to conserve the spawning stock at a level that will produce large year-classes and to accelerate the synergies of habitat restoration and an increasing spawning stock size. Hatchery augmentation is also an option that may be used in streams where populations are very distressed.

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