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Introducing: The White Perch
Pennsylvania's Premiere Tidal River Panfish

By ron P. swegman
White perch are an anadromous silver bass in the fish family Percichthyidae. These game panfish are the little cousin of the striped bass, and share much of the same Pennsylvania habitat, the tidal Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. White perch are found also in Lake Erie and several manmade impoundments throughout the southeastern portion of the Pennsylvania commonwealth.

An angler's first white perch can cause confusion. Juveniles are the size of sunfish, possess a few faint horizontal stripes above the lateral line, and resemble immature striped bass. White perch are more rounded, though, and this pelagic shape is retained in adults that range between one and two pounds. Veterans of this size know the river, as this species can reach a relatively old fish age of ten to twelve years. Why this bass came to be known as a perch can be traced to a mistaken classification during the colonial era, when the fish was first described as Perca americana.

A Fish With A Past

American shad were not the sole fish valued by our colonial founders. White perch have the look and solid feel of silver dollars, and were an equally important commercial fish. So popular was the white perch that when the oldest club of its kind in the world, The Schuylkill Fishing Company, formed near Philadelphia in 1732, the white perch was adopted onto its flag of state. The heraldry evolved into a single white perch in profile, surrounded by a circle of 13 stars and a red, white, and blue backdrop. The Revolutionary War had by then begun, and Generals George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette dined on white perch in the club's well-appointed fish house.

Fly-fishing For White Perch

Traditional fly rod techniques for stripers work well for white perch. The key difference to consider is hook size. A 2/0 Clouser Minnow will never do. The same pattern, scaled down to a panfish-friendly size 8 or 10, takes the little cousin's preferred size of forage into proper consideration. Other classic streamer patterns, the Muddler Minnow and Gray Ghost, can at times work wonders on white perch.

Trout enthusiasts may be delighted to know another series of patterns, bead head caddis, have proven to be successful flies for these fish. The same casting techniques used for trout need only be extended in range for the larger, warmer water that white perch prefer. Colors to match the hatch, in this case minnows, seem to follow the rule "the lighter the better" for white perch. The bright tan tone and flash of the bead in motion must imitate a literal "shiner" in the eyes of these aggressive, sprinting fish.

White perch bite best during spring low tides and are somewhat nocturnal, preferring to strike most often during the two hours bordering both sunrise and sunset. One exception is areas lit by lights. Like schooling striped bass, white perch congregate below the swarms of minnows attracted to the lamps flanking roads and bridges. On the evening I discovered the effectiveness of caddis pupae imitations under artificial light, I landed over a dozen fish from one large pool in the Schuylkill River. The area was brightly lit by nearby sodium streetlights. The combination of nightlight and flashing bead provided plentiful action -- and fun -- on that memorable Friday evening in Philadelphia.

The most effective presentation mimics panic. When feeding, white perch chase schools of baitfish to the surface. Pods of the frantic little fish skip the surface in all directions in six to twelve inch hops. Target casts toward these eruptions, which occur in otherwise calm, or smoothly flowing, water. Start by stripping the streamer across the surface in the same manic manner. If that does not lead to a strike, a sinking tip fly line or a small amount of non-toxic split shot can drop the pattern down the water column. Wherever the first fish strikes, one can be sure another half dozen may follow.

This strategy works equally well in still water environments. Anglers who fish for white perch in lakes should concentrate their efforts after dark around docks, piers, and jetties, not so much for the structure as the light. These surface areas can become roiled from the nighttime drama of big fish, little fish.

Birds Are An Angler's Friend

An angler need not pursue these surface disturbances, especially if the fish move toward water that is unsafe to wade or boat. When feeding frenzies move out of casting range, or into dangerous water, seek other indicators along the river. Fishing birds, particularly cormorants and herons, are as good as a human guide. Cormorants maneuver into position above schools of fish and dive down to dinner. Herons stalk the pools and eddies where manic minnows have been chased.

White perch are among the prey of these feathered predators. While I practice catch-and-release as a rule, I am also aware the white perch is an excellent food fish for both bird and man. Spawning fish in Pennsylvania's tidal rivers have been fattened up in the fertile Delaware Bay and Estuary. Savory preparations go as far back as colonial times. A signature dish of the Schuylkill Fishing Company -- white perch fried in "the best butter of the market" -- stands as a recipe that has lasted as long as our nation. ~ ron

About ron:

ron P. swegman is the author of museum of buildings: poems, and Philadelphia On The Fly, forthcoming in 2005 from Frank Amato Publications (Portland, OR). He lives, writes, and casts lines in Philadelphia, PA.

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