Jerking Perch

Watts, a retired Cape Fear River pilot, discovered White Lake’s fine perch fishing last year while checking out nearby Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land.

White Lake is a favorite venue for Carolina vacationers, but it’s also a major undiscovered raccoon perch hole.

It’s no small wonder White Lake is one of the state’s most popular tourist and pleasure boating destinations.

Named the “Nation’s Safest Beach,” the white sand and clear water offer swimmers boaters, scooter riders, sailors and water skiers an absolutely gorgeous site for summer entertainment.

And there are fish in the lake, despite what some local anglers tell you because they want to keep the excellent fishing a secret.

As a natural Carolina bay lake, the waters of White Lake, located near Elizabethtown in Bladen County, are acidic, with a pH of less than 4.0. This means the water is infertile, the same way agricultural fields not treated with lime to neutralize the pH are infertile because plants cannot use nutrients efficiently where the pH is low.

But such natural ecosystems have unique species, which develop over millennia. White Lake is no different than other Carolina bay lakes, with certain under-known fish species gaining a fin up over more glamorous species such as largemouth bass or crappies.

Basil Watts, a retired Cape Fear River pilot from Southport, was first exploring the area last year, checking out the nearby Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land, when he chanced upon Kevin Crabtree, the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Hunter Education Specialist at a grill overlooking the lake where he was eating lunch. Crabtree lives nearby and fishes at the lake whenever he gets the chance.

“There’s some bass fishing in the lake, despite what you hear,” Crabtree said. “Throw a Shad Rap in spring, and you’ll catch a few largemouth bass and some of them will be nice sizes.”

One problem with White Lake is that, although it’s a state park, the shoreline is completely private, with piers forming most of the fish-attracting structure. The only public access is from a pay ramp at White Lake Water Sports and Marina.

Maria and Richard Pulsifer took over management of the marina concession from a ski-boat dealership last year and began noticing anglers were launching from the beginning.

“They catch a few nice bass,” Richard Pulsifer said. “But the panfish, bream and yellow perch, seem to be the better bet.

“I’ve seen anglers put their boats in and never start their outboards. You can use a trolling motor or paddle away from the marina a short distance and catch all the fish you want.”

So it was with anticipation Watts put his small skiff into the water last June. He paid the ramp fee, launched his boat, used the rest room facilities at the marina and bought some ice and sodas.

“I grew up near the saltwater, but I enjoy freshwater fishing even more,” Watts said. “I think bream and other sunfish give us some of the best fun-fishing there is along the coast. It’s simple and easy to do. But people seem to ignore the smaller fish, even though they make some of the best-eating when you fry them up.”

Watts put down his trolling motor and switched it on as Pulsifer had suggested.

Creeping along the shoreline, he cast to visible cypress knees, submerged stumps and dock pilings. Although he caught a couple of small yellow perch no larger than his finger, he also landed some nice pumpkinseeds and bluegill sunfishes.

“Yellow perch move out from the bank when the water gets warmer,” he said. “You want to find a place where the bottom is a little steeper.

“The lake is so shallow and the sides slope so gradually, you can hardly pick up the differences with your depth-finder. What you need to look for are places where the piers are shorter, indicating a steeper bottom slope where people can get their boats in the water closer to the bank. The yellow perch form huge schools at these contour changes. Other things to look for are submerged weed beds and stumps.”

Watts used a Shad Rap, as Crabtree had recommended, for largemouth bass. It was a jointed lure, a No. 3, whereas Crabtree suggested a larger size.

“If the lure runs too deep, it snags submerged vegetation,” Watts said. “If it doesn’t go deep enough, it won’t catch the larger perch. The little ones are closer to the top, probably because the bigger fish are after them, driving them to the top.”

Watts based his food chain theory of yellow perch cannibalism on the colors that drive them wild. Lure with bright yellow, gold and especially blaze orange or a bright red-orange, seem to catch the most yellow perch.

“You can catch them two at a time with a small crankbait with bright colors,” he said. “The action is that fast when they’re hungry. But there are going to be lots of little ones, with about one in four to one in six fish big enough to be a keeper on a good day.”

Still, Watts said catching several dozen nice yellow perch in an afternoon of fishing was not too difficult. Some days, the fish seemed to school and others they seemed to occur in ones and twos.

“Sometimes they’re just plain finicky, too,” he said. “You can see them following your lure and not striking it. That’s when you toss them a spinner or a ‘minner.’ ”

Some anglers like to catch yellow perch, which are also called raccoon bream or raccoon perch of the vertical stripes on their dorsal sides and flanks, by using live baits. As Watts said, they strike crappie minnows and red worms anyone can buy in a tackle shop. Ned Connelly of Wilmington said he prefers Beetle Spins and small crankbaits, similar to those Watts uses, for catching them.

“The first time I came to White Lake, I was casting along the shoreline with a Rat-L-Trap,” he said. “I wanted to catch a largemouth bass and eventually that’s what I caught — one lonely largemouth bass for a day of fishing. But the first fish I caught was a yellow perch. They’re such beautiful fish and excellent eating. They are like catching and eating little walleye.”

Connelly lived in Kentucky and fished for walleyes in the cold mountain lakes of that state. He was pleased to catch the yellow perch in the sizes and numbers he discovered at White Lake.

“It’s probably the best yellow perch fishing I’ve ever had,” he said. “We caught several that probably weighed close to a pound and that’s a huge yellow perch.

“They have more meat than most other panfish because they’re long and have less head and therefore more body. But you’d better watch out when you go to unhook them. Their gills and fins can really stick you; they’re probably the most animated fish you’ll ever lift out of a lake.”

Connelly said his first White Lake yellow perch shook so hard when he tried to grab it the fish drove a hook into his shirt sleeve. Now he uses a towel or Kevlar fish-cleaning glove to grab yellow perch and works the lure’s hooks free with pliers.

“You’ll be surprised at the end of the day how many nicks, cuts and punctures you get catching a bunch of yellow perch,” he said. “Use an alcohol based gel cleaner on your hands, and you’ll see what I mean. There will be lots of ‘ouchy’ places.

“A bream sort of lies there when you haul him up. But a yellow perch can really make the hooks rattle. The little lures we use have extremely sharp wire hooks and a yellow perch can bury the point of one of them in your hand or wrist. Then he starts shimmying and shaking and you start bleeding all over the place.

“He might even stick you with a gill cover. You think it’s fish blood in the boat, but it’s yours, so you’d better have some Band-aids along.”

Sometimes the fish aren’t holding at his favorite fishing spots, so Watts finds yellow perch schools by using his depth-finder. He watches the screen for three things: fish, structures and depth.

“You’re catching them in not more than 5 feet of water with a bottom depth of around 7 feet,” he said. “The water skiers are out, and the wakes are making the boat seesaw a foot or two fore and aft, making the sonar signals less clear. You just have to say inside the no-wake zone that extends for 100 yards around the lake so you don’t get run over by ski boats.

“It’s primarily a boater’s lake, not a fisherman’s lake, so you want to check for fish along the perimeter.”

Watts sees marks that indicate fish, but most are individuals or small schools because the sonar cone is so narrow in the shallow water. He looks for aquatic vegetation jutting up from the bottom, which always seems to hold yellow perch. He often trolls at the same time he is taking electronic depth readings. When he sees fish marks combined with weeds and also gets a strike, he knows he’s found a gold mine of yellow perch.

“Once you make a pass or two and catch some fish, you can anchor or use the trolling motor and begin casting,” he said. “Cast around the clock in all directions until you find the biggest concentration of fish and keep casting to that spot.

“Once the fish begin to move, you have to move with the fish. Sometimes you can catch all you want from one spot; other times you have to keep moving. Wind and hot water temperatures seem to break up the schools, while cool water and calm days seem to keep the schools tighter.”

Both anglers use ultra-light spinning tackle to catch yellow perch, but Connelly uses tackle that also will land a big largemouth.

“I use what you would call light spinning tackle because I like catching largemouth along with yellow perch,” he said. “I use my speckled trout rod, a 7-footer with lots of flex, and 10- or 12-pound-test mono.”

Connelly also uses a fly rod for catching all species of panfish.

For yellow perch, he uses Clousers or other sinking flies. But he said small spoon flies also work well.

“Small metal spoons are old standby lures for catching yellow perch,” he said. “So a spoon fly, the same pattern we use for catching red drum, works equally well for catching yellow perch.

“It’s amazing how big a lure the little fish will attack. You can cast a big fly or lure and have a yellow perch on it that’s no bigger than whatever it is you used to caught him with.”

Watts hedges his bets against hooking bigger gamefish by using the smallest spinning rod he can find, a 4-footer, and “magnumizing” his line by using 10-pound test, 2-pound diameter superbraid line.

“I can land any fish that swims in the lake but still get a good fight out of the yellow perch,” he said. “Braids make long casts easy, and the sensitivity helps you be certain you’ve felt the strike of a small fish so you can set the hook.

“With mono, you’re going to miss lots of strikes, especially if there’s a belly in the line from wind. A white perch can spit a hook so fast you’ll never even know he hit your lure unless you see him following it, and White Lake is so clear, you can actually see the fish strike before you feel it.”

While Watts agrees yellow perch are on the small side of what many anglers consider game fish, he said it’s all in the angler’s perspective.

“Catch a bunch, clean and cook them, and what difference does it make how big they started out?” he said. “They all wind up bite-sized when you eat them.

“When I go to White Lake, I’m going after yellow perch. I’ll catch more fish than any bass fisherman.

“If I’m catching more fish, I think I’m having more fun.”

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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