Poised For A Comeback by James L. Bruner
We stood shoulder to shoulder on a small parcel of muddied shoreline trading rhetorical gestures while pausing briefly for a gulp of steaming hot coffee in the crisp morning air. The aroma of apple flavored pipe tobacco and cheap cigars floated endlessly along the shoreline as a small army of men, women, and children, began the day with the annual tradition of spring perch fishing at the mouth of the river. At times the bickering between fishermen and tangled lines seemed as though it would erupt into a full blown riot but as always the attention turned back to fishing and amends were made. Within two hours myself and my father each had our limit of 50 keeper perch. Surely we had probably caught closer to 75 perch apiece that morning but one can allow the option to be choosy with such an abundance literally at your fingertips.
The cast of characters along the riverbank, probably close to 100 in all, each had their own methods of fishing. Some used fly rods and wigglers while the majority chose your basic spinning reel equipped with a perch rig and minnows to entice the fish. Honestly, there was no immediate need for enticement as these fish were voracious. I watched on two separate occasions as dad caught fish after fish on a bare hook and to take it one step further he also caught two small perch on the same hook. True story. The fact was that everyone caught their limit of perch in those days when there were tremendous runs of schooling perch heading to the river to spawn. Consider 100 fishermen each with 50 perch and a couple dozen more fishermen waiting in their vehicles for an opportunity to claim a spot on the bank when one fisherman would leave. Year after year, as sure as the sun would rise, we made the trek until the spawning run was over and the perch headed back for deeper water. It seemed as though this yearly event would never end. But it did. And nearly that quickly.
Some made claims that the growing cormorant population was to blame even though in those earlier days the cormorants were really just becoming to make an explosive comeback. Some say it was the change in water levels as we began to see a slow decline in the lakes which obviously changed the structure of many rivers and would continue to this day with a more likely “green label” of global warming. Others laid claim to the fact that we began a more aggressive stocking technique which entailed larger predatory fishes mainly in the salmon family or of similar stature and there has been mention of zebra mussels and their competitive nature for feeding. And, some shouldered part of the blame themselves, believing that we simply abused an abundant fishery without paying attention to the consequences. Regardless of the actual cause and effect it’s been recently released that the perch of our Great Lakes are beginning to make a comeback and, for this Michigan native, that could mean the chance to treat my own daughter to a tradition that had since been lost.
The technique used to determine perch populations is trawling. During a ten minute period a bag net is dragged, or trawled, behind the boat. After this time lapse the net is retrieved and the perch are counted. In the most recent trawling surveys both Wisconsin and Michigan DNR have seen promising results as compared to the previous years. In the Green Bay trawling numbers have been reported as the best in the last two decades. That, in my opinion, is a very good signal that the yellow perch have begun to once again establish a healthy population. When perch populations stabilize they tend to take care of themselves if they can avoid immediate threats. In similar trawling surveys in Little and Big Bay De Nocs the results weren’t quite as impressive but also have shown an absolute increase. Because the perch populations have proven that they can establish themselves in the past the DNR has noted that they would not be seeking to stock any fingerling perch to try and boost the current numbers. As much as we would like to see a rapid increase in numbers I believe that their stance on stocking more perch is directly reflected by the number increase we are seeing naturally. Just the same, if the population stabilizes, we should have the gears in motion to pay particular attention to this fishery as it may lend some evidence into the first disappearance of a once healthy bounty of fish.
To put this into perspective I could simply say that there is more than a glimmer of hope for the current perch populations to once again thrive in our local waters. That thought alone takes me back full circle to where we muddied our boots along the riverbank and enjoyed a stable fishery of yellow perch, not to mention, a lot of great meals on the table. Here’s to the yellow perch, the hot coffee on cold mornings, and the endless stream of fishermen rooting for the underdog to once again make it’s way back as an annual tradition.