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Lake Erie brimming with perch that love shoreline in Ontario
By Eric Sharp
Centre Daily Times
Published May. 29, 2005


LEAMINGTON, Ontario -- Talk about heightened expectations.

The buckets aboard Joe Belanger's 29-foot Aquasport held 134 perch, most of them 10 to 12 inches, along with a dozen jumbos that ran 12 to 14. On almost any other body of water, it would be a pretty fair day for six anglers.

Not on Lake Erie.

"They're out here, but they just wouldn't turn on today," said Belanger's son Darryl as he pulled the anchor over a reef about 10 miles offshore.

As the boat headed back to Leamington Harbor about 30 miles southeast of Detroit, Darryl Belanger said: "The guys who went out early today got a limit in a couple of hours. But until today we've been catching them better in the afternoon."

The daily limit in Ontario is 50 perch per angler.

The yellow perch is a smaller cousin of the walleye and one of the most sought-after food fish in fresh water. In a time of scarcity in recent years, restaurants have paid up to $16 per pound for this delicacy.

Dramatic changes in the ecology of the Great Lakes, most brought about by the arrival of exotic species from the oceans and Europe, have resulted in equally dramatic reductions in perch numbers and sizes throughout much of their Great Lakes range.

The one place that has not been the case is the Canadian shoreline of Lake Erie, where the bottom topography and food web remain nearly perfect for producing not only large numbers of perch but exceptionally big ones.

Darryl Belanger is a charter captain like his dad, and they probably are among the best perch anglers in North America.

They also are extremely competitive, and days like this one, when they fish together, often seem more like contests than fun fishing trips.

"Hey, look at this," Darryl Belanger yelled from the front deck of the boat. He lifted a deeply bent rod and dropped a pair of 10-inchers into his bucket, the kind of perch double that draws anglers to these waters.

Joe Belanger pretended not to notice, but Darryl hadn't finished removing the hooks from his fish when the father's rod twitched. He yelled, "Ha, ha! Now this is what we were looking for." He landed a gleaming, black-and-brass fish that a tape measure showed was 14[ inches.

It was far from the biggest perch the Belangers have caught. These waters routinely produce fish that go 15 to 16 inches, especially in the spring post-spawn period and in the fall, when cooling waters trigger the perch to go on a feeding binge.

Bob Haas, the head research biologist at the state Department of Natural Resources' laboratory on Lake St. Clair, said the low reefs in 20 to 40 feet of water along the Canadian shoreline produce bottom-dwelling "organisms that are ideal for perch of every size."

The organisms are eaten not only by perch but by the smaller fish perch eat.

"The size of the food items is very important," Haas said. "You need food items of a certain size in order to get the perch from one state of growth to the next."

Perch fishing in lakes Huron and Michigan has been hurt by the disappearance of a tiny freshwater shrimp called diporeia, which is eaten by juvenile and adult perch. The diporeia apparently have been starved out of existence by exotic zebra and quagga mussels from the Baltic Sea. The mussels filter out food that used to support the little shrimp.

But Lake Erie, a warmer and shallower body of water, contains large numbers of other freshwater crustaceans called amphipods, which Haas said can better survive competition from the mussels.

Bigger perch eat minnows and juvenile game fish, but Lake Erie also offers them an almost-limitless supply of a food source many anglers don't think about -- the nymphs of Hexagenia mayflies. They hatch in such numbers each summer that miles of water are often covered by the brown shucks they leave behind.

"We've even seen adult walleyes feeding on Hexes," Haas said. "They are a very good food source. If the perch have Hexes, they might not need to eat fish at all."

On this day, the Belangers spend a lot of time cruising from reef to reef, stopping at places where they have caught fish in recent days. Being on the reefs every day -- and knowing where the fish might go next -- gives them a tremendous advantage.

"You can fish one place and catch nice perch for three, four days in a row, then the next day you come out and they're gone," Joe Belanger said. "They usually don't go far, only a few hundred yards, but in a lake this big, it can take awhile to locate them."

The problem on this trip isn't a lack of fish. At each place Belanger stops the boat, the screen of the electronic fish-finder shows plenty of perch on the bottom.

"But you stop and catch a half-dozen, and then they turn off," Darryl Belanger sad. "Days like this, you just keep moving around and looking for fish that want to eat."

The Belangers said they would continue to fish for perch through June, then switch to other species. But even though the Belangers will leave the perch reefs, the perch won't. Joe Belanger said the perch stay all year, and people with small boats can launch at numerous harbors along the Ontario shoreline and catch fish on reefs within a mile or two of shore.

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