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This is the week for the annual tradition known as catching a “feed of perch.” Anglers across the state set out with rod and reel intent on filling a cooler with white perch in anticipation of the July 4 holiday cookout. It happens that white perch are most active this month as they gather to spawn, so of course it makes sense to fish for them when they are most numerous and aggressive.
I guess that’s what keeps any tradition going — a steady supply of whatever it is you’re after!
And, Maine has plenty of white perch — perhaps more than some folks want to see — thanks in part to illegal introductions of these fish in various waters throughout the state. Perch are productive and persistent, quickly dominating any waters they inhabit, which is not good news for trout and salmon anglers but great news for the frying pan coalition. In many waters the salmonid limit is down to one or two fish per day, but you can fill a barge with white perch and not go over the limit — because there is none! In fact, most of Maine’s warmwater species have no bag limit. Bluegills, crappies, perch and bullheads may be taken without regard to size or number, which suggests that there are plenty of them out there.
Find a honey hole of perch in July and you’ll think the supply is endless. I have participated in a number of these events and rarely had a problem catching enough fish. On the few occasions when greed got the better of us, we were able to fill a 25-gallon oil barrel with fish. How many perch would that be? Let’s just say that with four people armed with filleting knives, two hours of steady work didn’t reduce the barrel’s contents by half! The fish fry was slightly delayed till the work was done, and sometime around midnight the first golden fried fillets finally made it to the table!
I good rule of thumb is to figure on catching no more than 6 fish per person – that’s a dozen fillets the size of a playing card, more than enough to satisfy any fisherman, especially with potato salad, beans, cole slaw and various other dishes added to the mix. You can certainly catch more fish and freeze them for later, but with no size or bag limit, why not just catch what you need each time you get the urge and save the freezer space for more venison?
If you have a large order of fish to fill, perhaps the best approach is to go with a basic hook and line rig, dig up a coffee can full of garden worms and spend the afternoon dipping and hauling. Perch are not shy about taking a bait and will keep your rod bent all day. Don’t be afraid to add a few bluegills to the mix if they are biting, because they taste just as good as a fresh-caught perch.
If you want to “fish” for perch, try small, shiny lures and spinners. If you have the inclination, keep a few lines out baited with worms and spend some time casting lures to attract passing fish. I’ve often found that lures will take the bigger perch while baits tend to produce more, smaller fish. The important thing is to get them into the boat, so go with your personal preferences and just have a good time.
Fish last longer and taste best if you handle them properly from the instant they come off the hook. Plan ahead and fill half your cooler, bucket or barrel with ice. Keep your catch cool and fillet them as soon as you get back to shore or home. Don’t make the mistake of keeping your fish in the bottom of the boat, driving home with piles of fish in an empty bucket or allowing them to shrivel and dry in the heat and wind. Fish flesh is fragile and prone to spoil so treat your catch with care. Keep your fish on ice till you get the fillet knife going and then keep the meat cool till you’re ready to start frying.
Of course, you don’t have to stop fishing once the holiday is over. Good warmwater fishing will continue into September all over our area, and the lazy days of summer are perfect for drifting around a lake or pond with a baited hook in the water. You may catch anything from a tiny bluegill to a giant bass or pickerel, so find the time to get out there and make the most of your opportunities. Most of our panfish species are underutilized, and in most cases you’ll have the entire pond or lake to yourself.
In fact, if you want real solitude, try spending a late evening on the water in search of horned pout (bullheads), which are among the tastiest of fish and yet are all but ignored by most anglers. These spiny little catfish are most active after sunset, and in many cases you can just set up a few forked sticks on shore and fish in water no more than three feet deep. Using worms, pieces of liver or any of the prepared “stink baits,” you can fill a 5-gallon pail with bullheads in an hour or two.
By the way, cleaning a bullhead is literally a snap. Hold the fish belly up, snap the head back at the gills and pull back toward the tail. The viscera, skin and head come off in one piece, leaving the entire edible part of the fish in your hand. It takes a little practice to become proficient, but I’ve seen experienced anglers clean 100 bullheads in about 15 minutes.
Remember that for warmwater fishing in Maine anglers over age 16 will need a general fishing license — a bargain considering you can catch all the fish you want and keep all that you wish. A persistent angler who enjoys his fishing could probably fill two freezers over the course of a summer — as long as he also truly enjoys running a fillet knife!
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