White perch a tasty alternative

Dale Hines set the hook early Wednesday morning and added credence to the old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

“We need to get the public educated that these aren’t a trash fish a good fish,” Hines said as he hefted two 10-inch fish attached to the same line. “Our problem with white perch is when we can’t find enough of them.”

It’s been about 15 years since white perch, a fish native to estuaries of America’s eastern coast, were inadvertently stocked into Cheney and Wilson reservoirs with a shipment of small striped bass. About five years ago, they appeared in El Dorado Reservoir, and have since been located in several state fishing lakes. Most places, the fish have brought bad news.

At Cheney, they were credited with virtually wiping out multiple classes of popular sport fish such as white bass and walleye as they ate the young of the species and out-competed all sizes for gizzard shad and other foods.

The white perch grew to mind-boggling numbers, becoming the most common fish in the lake, but their high numbers kept sizes below anything that might make them attractive to anglers. El Dorado has faced similar challenges.

Hines, who runs a guiding service from a house that overlooks arguably Kansas’ most scenic lake, relies on the fish heavily when more glamorous species such as walleye and stripers have lock-jaw. He likes that Wilson’s white perch can offer the three main things — fast action, dependability and tasty fillets.

“If you’re wanting fish to eat, a lot of days these are your best option,” Hines said as he tossed a white perch into a cooler. “We don’t hardly have any white bass anymore, and these taste better, anyway.”

The man who has fished Wilson more than 100 days since February said he can often leave his house shortly before sunrise and be back with 50 to 60 white perch cleaned by 10 a.m.

“Which would you rather do, have that kind of fishing or sit in one spot for four hours, fishing live-bait, hoping to catch one striper?” Hines said.

Wednesday morning, Hines slowed his boat as he approached a broad flat in about 35 feet of water. When his locator showed a concentration of fish, he dropped a line with a 5/8-ounce white slab spoon on the end, and a 1/8-ounce marabou jig tied about 16 inches higher. Snapping his wrist, Hines popped the lures up a few feet, then let them free-fall to the bottom so they imitated injured gizzard shad.

Within five minutes, a fish nearly yanked the spinning outfit from his hand.

“It’s a striper,” Hines said. “They’ll be out here feeding on the white perch. Some days we get into quite a few of them, and some days we don’t.”

Common for the species at Wilson, the striper didn’t look healthy.

“Most have a nice, big head, like it should weigh eight pounds,” Hines said. “But their body is so skinny they may weigh five or six.”

Skinny stripers, and low numbers of white bass, could be the result of Wilson’s white perch population.

Scott Waters, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist, said the fish have been out-competing white bass and other fish for gizzard shad for several years, and that’s not something Wilson normally has in great numbers most summers.

“We have pretty water, but it’s not really fertile water like a lot of our lakes,” Waters said. “Our shad numbers have been terrible the last few years, and the white perch have been out-competing other fish for what we have.”

In a way, their voracious appetites may be backfiring on the white perch at Wilson.

Waters said with shad scarce, young white perch have become the main forage fish for much of the year.

“I’ve talked to guys who got into surfacing stripers up by the dam, and they were pushing little white perch to the surface, not shad,” Waters said.

The result is Wilson’s white perch population has fallen rapidly the past few years. Waters said 2005 testing showed 143 white perch per seine-haul. This year it was down to about two. Fall test nettings are down to less than half of what they were in 2010.

With reduced numbers comes increased size. Waters said the average size has increased from about six to 10 inches in the past few years. Hines has caught white perch of more than one pound. Unlike the stripers, most of Wilson’s white perch look healthy.

Like fishing for any species of fish, Waters’ morning at Wilson had more “fishing” than “catching” at the lake. In the first two hours he had two stripers and two white perch. Then, he found the concentration he was looking for.

Within a minute at one spot he set the hook as one perch smacked his line, and then felt the strike of another as it grabbed the second lure.

“When you get into these things, most of the time you’ll get two at once,” he said as he brought the fish aboard. The bookend fish were about 10 1/2 inches long, and as thick as a quality t-bone steak ... the size of fish that would make most crappie fishermen drool. Hines notes white perch fight harder than crappie.

The fish are flavorful enough that Hines said he often eats them three times a week. Some years he’s put up to 1,400 white perch in his freezer.

Many of his clients have enjoyed a great white perch fry, after what could have been a slow day for other species.

“A lot of people come and want to start out for walleye or stripers, and we may or may not get into them,” he said as he added his 12th white perch in about 20 minutes to his cooler. “But if that’s slow, and I can get them into action like this, they’re more than happy. If we didn’t have these nice white perch in here, I couldn’t be (guiding).”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle