Anglers fish for yellow perch on Andy Platko’s Rough House Charters boat.
Last season was not what Andy Platko would call an easy one.
As captain of Rough House Charters, the Kittanning man guides anglers on Lake Erie, targeting a variety of species.
When it comes to yellow perch in particular, he said he’s able to boat limits of fish on nearly every trip. That was 30 fish per person in 2015.
“We get our fair share of jumbos, too, fish anywhere from 10 to 13 inches. The average is probably about nine,” Platko said.
That was the case again last year, for the most part. He only had one trip where his catch was, if not bad, not up to par either.
But he had to work a little harder to make things happen, he said.
“Last season was a little tougher,” Platko said. “I think it might have been the weather. It got warm early and that kind of pushed the fish into super-deep water really quickly, and pushed them toward Canada.”
Biologists are waiting to see how Erie’s perch situation plays out this year. While a lot of other species – walleyes, smallmouth bass and lake trout — are doing well, Erie’s perch aren’t.
Populations have been in a “steady decline” since 2010, said Mark Haffley, a biologist and captain of the research boat in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Lake Erie Research Unit.
That’s thought to be the result of poor annual recruitment via natural reproduction, he said.
The good news is that Pennsylvania’s portion of the lake is maintaining its perch numbers better than the western basin.
“The population models tell us there has been a decline from record high abundance a few years ago, but Pennsylvania’s modest perch fishery has been performing fairly well in the face of these declines,” said Chuck Murray, Lake Erie research unit leader for the commission.
“We saw a fairly sharp decline in anger harvest rate last year, much more abrupt that I would have thought. Conversely, our assessment nets told us that the perch were there in good numbers, but anglers didn’t have much luck catching them.”
The key, Platko said, was just being able to find perch.
“We did pretty good once we found the pockets of fish. The, they were about the same size, and out catch rates were about the same,” he said.
Haffley expects anglers will experience something similar this year. That’s good fishing, but not necessarily easy fishing.
“There are fish out there to be caught. It’s just not like it used to be, where you could catch your limit in an hour,” Haffley said. “You’re going to have to work a little harder.”
He pointed out, too, that for all the concern about Erie’s perch, it gives up more big fish – by far – than anywhere else in the state. It accounted for 78 percent of all the “angler awards” handed out by the agency in 2015.
Those fish averaged 13.9 inches and 1.33 pounds, he said.
As for the best times to target perch, Haffley said “June and September are wonderful months.”
Lake Erie’s outlook for some other species, meanwhile, is more promising.
“Walleye, smallmouth bass and lake trout will provide great opportunities for angler targeting those species in 2016. All of those species will provide trophy class fish,” Murray said.
The biggest walleyes will be pushing 13 years old.
They’re the leftovers of a gigantic walleye boom in 2003, Haffley said. An estimated 100 million fish joined the population that year. He called it the biggest year class seen in 35 years.
Those fish are still around, accounting for about one third of last year’s harvest.
“It’s still a driving force in Pennsylvania walleye fishing,” Haffley said.
The lake saw good year classes of walleyes in 2014 and 2015, too. They weren’t as big as 2003’s, but they make the outlook for the future “very promising,” Haffley added.
“This is the trend we like to see, where there’s a lot of young fish. We have a really nice mixture of lengths, a nice mixture of ages. Those are very good signs for what’s to come,” Haffley said.
The best time to target walleyes is late June through September, Murray said.
Before that, in May, is when anglers should be looking for smallmouths, he added. After, in October, is when the lake trout action is best.
May is good for bass because of where they’re at, Haffley said.
“There are a lot of fish, a lot of big fish. And they’re in shallow, spawning, where they’re vulnerable to a lot of common fishing techniques,” he said.
Lake trout are – with brookies – one of only two trout species native to Pennsylvania. It’s been a long time since they were able to sustain themselves here, though. Haffley said those in Lake Erie are maintained exclusively through stocking.
But they’re out there.
“They’re beautiful, and they’re giant,” he said.
And waiting to be caught, like Erie’s other fish. The lake is a jewel, Haffley said.
“More fish are caught annually, and more fish are harvested annually, from Lake Erie than all the other Great Lakes combined,” he said. “It’s a very productive lake.”
Even in these times, Pennsylvania’s portion of Lake Erie has been producing perch consistently.
So how many yellow perch and walleyes will anglers be allowed to take in a day from Lake Erie?
Answers are coming.
Lake Erie is managed cooperatively by a committee made up of representatives from the fish management agencies in each of the states and provinces that touch it. They meet each year to determine a “total allowable catch” – commercial and recreational — for all species.
This year’s committee meetings are set for March 30-31, said Fish and Boat Commission biologist Chuck Murray.
The commission will announce walleye and perch creel limits no later than April 15.
For the last two seasons, the perch limit has been 30 per day and the walleye limit six.