by Joyce Deaton In the eastern third of North Carolina, in those wide, flat, often blackwater rivers, and in those bowl-shaped natural lakes, the white perch is king.
In Piedmont reservoirs, there’s ongoing discussion about whether the white perch needs a jeweled crown or prison garb – there’s no in-between.
Since they appeared in Piedmont reservoirs in the mid-1990s, the feisty, tasty little member of the true “bass” or “morone” family has carved out a pretty big niche. On the one hand, the white perch seems always to be hungry and always willing to save what would otherwise be a lost fishing trip. In addition, they make a pretty good leap from livewell to cooler to frying pan. And the fishermen who target trophy blue catfish seem to believe that cut white perch or white perch filets are among the best baits around.
On the other hand, however, are fishermen who have seen some of their favorite gamefish – white bass and crappie – on a swift, downward decline, point to the little immigrant from the east as the sum of all fears.
“What really worries me is that High Rock is starting to get a lot of them,” said Jerry Neeley of Bessemer City, who operates Capt. Jerry’s Guide Service.
Neeley guides for bass on Lake Wylie and Lake Norman, and he guides for catfish on Lake Norman. He used to guide for crappie on Wylie, but then the fishery went from dynamite to distraught in the period of a half-dozen years. He responded by turning his crappie-fishing attention to High Rock, where his parties have had countless 100-fish days.
“Wylie used to be like High Rock is now, eight or nine years ago,” he said. “I’m afraid we’ll see High Rock become like Wylie is now in two or three years, when the white perch really take over.”
Neeley admits that white perch are fun to catch, especially for kids who aren’t particular, as long as something’s biting. And he understands they’re pretty good table fare, but he’s worried that they out-compete fish that are native to the area, wiping them out.
Biologists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources point to white perch as being most responsible from the disappearance of reservoir white bass. They eat fish eggs of all kinds, and they’re usually coming off their spawning run, feeding back up, when white bass and stripers appear in the tailrace below hydroelectric dams, ready to flood the water with their eggs.
While many fishermen echo Neeley’s concerns, there is a big chunk of fishermen who are happy to have another species to target, even if it’s one that rarely weighs more than a pound.
Maynard Edwards, who runs Yadkin Lakes Guide Service out of his home in Lexington, guides for just about everything that swims on High Rock, Tuckertown and Badin lakes. He sees them as a positive, at least right now.
“There’s getting to be quite a few of them at High Rock – they’re reproducing real well – and we’re starting to see some bigger ones,” Edwards said. “You can really have a lot of fun catching them, and I hear they’re pretty good to eat.”
On Lake Tillery, they’re one of the favorite summertime species, because when stripers, bass and crappie shut down, they’re still hungry.
Fishermen find them either busting the service, chasing small baitfish, or in deeper water, in tightly-packed schools, harassing schools of threadfin shad. On the surface, they can be caught with small in-line spinners, small topwater baits and tiny jigs. In deep water, fishermen jig for them vertically with tiny spoons, tempt them with live worms or minnows, or catch them three or four at a time on multi-hook contraptions like the Sabiki rig.
It features a sinker tied to the end of the monofilament and a series of tiny jigs or ice flies spaced out on dropper loops. Tipping the little jigs with a tiny piece of meat – shad, shrimp or worm are commonly used – is a deadly way to catch a bucketful in one stop.