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Today being Independence Day, why not celebrate in fine piscatorial fashion and enjoy one of the most important sporting traditions in Maine, i.e., gathering the ingredients for a “feed of perch.” The ubiquitous white perch is the target of choice for this popular, if unsung, summertime event, and chances are if you live near any body of water large enough to float a boat, you will have enough perch nearby to feed the entire town, if you choose to fillet that many!
I have spent sultry July 4 weekends on most of the ponds and lakes in our area in search of the main course, and have never been disappointed. You can catch white perch on the beach at Sebasticook, from a boat in Big Indian or off the bridge at Harlow Pond, and you won't have to be there all day, either.
I think the biggest white perch I've ever seen were caught in Branns Mill Pond by none other than Trooper Dave Preble back when he was fresh out of the army and learning the ropes (handcuffs?) with the Maine Department of Corrections in Charleston. We were hired as guards on the night shift, which left us plenty of time to fish during the day. Anyway, Dave caught a couple of perch one day that I truly thought would challenge the state-record fish, though Dave ate the evidence before we could verify his catch. Such is the appeal of white perch!
There isn't much that's difficult about catching a mess of perch for a holiday dinner, which only adds to the appeal of these tasty fish. Where perch are present in a lake they are innumerable, a good thing when you want enough fillets to feed the family and you don't have time to be there all day. In a good spot (and with enough bait) you can fill a trashcan with perch in a few hours. Most folks don't need (or want to fillet!) that many fish, but you get the idea.
The best approach is to start with a 2-pound coffee can full of garden worms. Other baits will work (perch will take a variety of bugs and most small lures), but if your day on the water includes a few kids (and it should), the gathering of a copious supply of fat, juicy worms is part of the fun. A few minutes of digging in a weedy corner of the garden should produce enough bait for a day's fishing, but you can also pick worms from under rocks, logs and other moveable debris (junk piles usually have them to spare). Night crawlers are just as good but, practically speaking, they're unnecessarily large for perch fishing. Of course, you can cut the bigger crawlers into small pieces - the perch won't complain about it! Small minnows are also great for perch, but more difficult to acquire, handle and maintain.
Tackle for perch fishing is about as simple as it gets in the angling world. Any rod and reel combination will do, but you'll make life easier for yourself (and those kids) if you put fresh line on the reel, check the last few feet of the line for frays or worn spots, and make sure your hooks (No. 6 or 8) are sharp. You won't need a sinker in most cases, but a bobber might help keep your bait out of the weeds, especially when fishing from shore in shallow water.
The technique is rudimentary: Toss your bait out there as far as you can (and it doesn't need to go very far) and wait as long as you can. When a school of hungry perch comes by (and they will) you won't have to wonder if you have a bite - these are aggressive fish that hit and run with authority. If perch weighed 5 pounds most largemouth bass anglers would switch to perch!
If you're in a boat or canoe, target coves, the edges of weed beds and deep holes along the shoreline. The lee (downwind) side of islands usually offers good fishing, too. When in doubt or on unfamiliar water, watch for surface disturbances that look like sudden, concentrated rain showers when it's not raining! The splashing is made by frantic minnows fleeing ahead of a school of feeding perch, a bad sign for minnows but good news for fishermen. Paddle as close to the disturbance as you can get, toss a baited hook into the fray and hang on. Keep in mind that feeding schools of perch move fast and often, so you'll have great fishing for a few minutes and then a lull till you find them again. (No matter how plentiful the quarry, it's still called fishing for a reason!)
Normally, you should be able to leave the house at sunrise and be home with your quota of fish (the limit on white perch in Maine is the number of fish you feel like filleting - and remember that a trash can full of perch will likely take you (and all your friends) a couple of hours to handle. There's also a reason why we call it “a mess of perch!”
Recipes for perch abound, but a good, simple approach is to dredge your boneless fillets in milk or egg, cover them with cornmeal or flour, and fry them in oil for two or three minutes. These white, flaky fish don't require much cooking, so test the first few pieces (your reward for all that work!) and then stick with the cooking time that best suits your taste.
Break out the peas, some frozen fiddleheads or corn, some seasoned home fries and coleslaw and dig in. At this point you will probably regret not having filled that trash-can with perch (or be glad that you did). In any case, you'll understand the allure of white perch to so many Mainers. It also makes me wonder if those catch-and-release fanatics know what they are missing!
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