When most Alabama fishermen talk about “going perch jerking,” they usually mean they want to catch bluegills or some other member of the sunfish family. It could also mean loading a boat with “white perch,” another member of the sunfish family that most people call crappie. However, in parts of Alabama, a real member of the perch family could give a new meaning to the phrase.
Traditionally a northern species, yellow perch range across the Midwest to the Atlantic and into Canada. Along the East Coast, they exist as far south as South Carolina. This colorful elongated green and golden-hued fish tinged with orange and sporting vertical black bars also extends partly down the Mississippi River and along the Apalachicola River into Florida. People introduced them into countless other systems. Many anglers might not realize that this species also calls parts of Alabama home.
“Yellow perch are found all over Alabama, but they are not native to the state other than some potential populations in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,” says Keith Henderson, a biologist for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division in Montgomery. “It’s believed that most of the populations in the Tennessee, Chattahoochee and Tallapoosa rivers are all introduced.”
A yellow perch can grow up to 20 inches long and weigh more than four pounds, but most measure less than 12 inches and weigh a little more than a pound. The world record and the oldest freshwater record in North America weighed 4 pounds, 3 ounces, a New Jersey fish caught in May 1865.
“We have some yellow perch in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, but they are not abundant at all,” says Lee Grove Jr., a state fisheries biologist in Spanish Fort. “We see them in Bay Minette Creek and Cedar Creek, but they’re pretty small. Every couple of years, someone brings in a yellow perch or sends a picture to our office wondering what it is.”
As a northern species, yellow perch prefer cooler, clear flowing waters with good vegetation coverage. They can move into a niche that native fish like crappie might avoid. In larger reservoirs, yellow perch tend to stay in deeper water than bluegills and favor the tributary creeks.
“Yellow perch seem to thrive where our native sport fish are not doing as well,” Henderson says. “They’re not necessarily competing with our sport fish, but they are kind of replacing them in areas with little current and clear, cold water. I’ve caught some of my biggest perch by pulling threadfin shad or small gizzard shad under planer boards when fishing for striped bass.”
Most Alabama anglers probably catch yellow perch more by accident than design. Once anglers find a place where they can catch perch more consistently, they specifically target them. Where abundant, perch regularly gather in large schools.
Perch normally eat worms, minnows, crawfish, insects, shad and other natural baits. The small scrappers might also strike crappie jigs, curled-tailed grubs, spoons, smaller in-line spinnerbaits and even some largemouth bass lures like jerkbaits fished on light line with a slow retrieval.
For the best real perch-jerking in Alabama, visit the Tallapoosa River and associated waters like Yates Reservoir, Lake Martin and Thurlow Lake. The Tallapoosa system holds a sufficiently large and widespread population for people to intentionally fish for yellow perch.
In March 2015, Grove pulled the state record from Yates Reservoir. The fish weighed 2 pounds, 2 ounces. The waterbody impounds about 1,980 acres of the Tallapoosa River near Tallassee. People might also catch perch in the Tennessee or Chattahoochee River systems, but most catches there usually occur by people fishing for bass or crappie.
“I was just at the right place at the right time when I caught that state record,” Grove recalls. “Some of us decided to go fishing on Yates Reservoir to see if we could catch a few yellow perch. When we started fishing it was just unbelievable. The first one I caught broke the state record. Another tied the record. We also caught a 1-pound, 12-ounce fish and a 1-pound, 9-ounce fish plus a couple 1-pounders, all on crappie jigs without bait. Anything that replicates a shad or a minnow might work on yellow perch.”
If you can find them, yellow perch provide exciting sport on light tackle and exceptional tablefare with light flaky flesh prepared in various ways. Many people fry the smaller ones like bluegills. Fish connoisseurs can also fillet larger specimens for baking, broiling and grilling.
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.