In early November, Peter Huntington dropped by with a much-appreciated gift of white perch he had caught in Tisbury Great Pond.
I first encountered that salt pond’s perch more than 80 years ago, so I was not surprised to see them in Peter’s bucket. I was startled by their size, however. Many were pushing two pounds and a few were a bit larger. Over the decades since I first fished for them — with a cane pole, worms and a bobber — in front of Dan’l Manter’s boathouse on the east shore of the pond’s Town Cove, they had averaged about half a pound.
I was immediately captivated by the species and for several boyhood years I never failed to visit Town Cove which was one of the places where they congregated in spring to spawn. As the years went by, however, I became more interested in striped bass and bluefish, both species that are frequent visitors to the pond.
I anointed a brace of Peter’s perch — he had cleaned and scaled them for me — with a mild mixture of melted butter, salt, pepper, garlic and powdered basil and baked them for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Both my partner, Ruth Kirchmeier, and I found their flavor and texture superb. Indeed, no less an expert on fishing and fish cookery than the late A.J. McLane observes in his classic New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia that “there is no finer fish to eat than the white perch.”
Assailed by a yearning for more white perch, Ruth and I went to Town Cove a few days later. After paddling about for a half hour, we located a school of them and within 15 minutes I had six perch flopping in the bottom of the canoe, all save one in the two-pound class. I was using a six-pound-test spinning outfit and a small spinner with a worm-baited hook and was reminded anew of the white perch’s strength and aggressiveness. Over the years I had decided that the best lure for white perch is a spinner — white, silver or gold — with a blade that is less than an inch long. I also learned that the best time to fish for white perch is from a half hour before to a half hour after sunset.
On suitably light gear, it is a first-rate game fish. It is not acrobatic, but it makes several powerful surges before sliding easily into the landing net. I should add that white perch are not finicky. Peter had used a small jig adorned with a little piece of squid.
Whatever you use to woo this chunky, powerful, and aggressive fish, you would do well to wear a leather glove on one hand for the unhooking process to avoid being punctured by one of its stiff, sharp and prominent dorsal spines. As I scaled and gutted our perch at sundown I was surprised to discover that most of them were laden with either fully developed roe or milt.
As previously noted, I had come to think of white perch as spring spawners. The sacs of roe and milt they contained were, in my opinion, nearly ready to be released. I have been trying to come up with an explanation for this and thus far can only surmise that global warming may have a role. Last winter the pond was essentially ice free, and it looks as if the same thing is going to take place in the 2012-2013 winter. Until recently, the pond has always had at least a thin coating of ice over much of its surface in winter, and I remember winters in my boyhood when the young bloods of my hometown of West Tisbury raced automobiles on the ice.
While I was catching perch with Ruth, I felt a little nibble and set the hook. My quarry had little substance, and when I pulled it to the canoe it was an 8-inch sea robin, a saltwater species that I had never before caught in the pond, save in summer and close to the pond’s opening — more than two miles to the south — through the barrier beach. Why in November a sea robin was lurking in three feet of water at the upper end of the pond where Mill Brook enters, I know not.
White perch are found in salt, brackish, and fresh water from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. Although they have been caught close to shore in the ocean, this is not common or widespread. Those that are not landlocked spend most of their lives in bays, estuaries, and salt ponds. Closely related to the striped bass, they are a highly prolific species. When spawning, they move into areas where tributary streams enter. Unlike many fish species, they do not pair off during the procreative ritual. There is no “nest” on the stream or pond bottom. The females simply release their eggs haphazardly and the males spray their milt in the same area. A one-pound female can produce as many as 150,000 eggs. The white perch is one of the world’s most prolific fishes.
As do striped bass, perch thrive in fresh water lakes and ponds, and because of their fertility and aggressiveness they are regarded as a nuisance in some states, including Minnesota where they are listed as a prohibited invasive species. They are also in all the Great Lakes and in inland waters in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio. White perch have been illegally introduced into many inland ponds and lakes by those members of the sport fishing fraternity who have an urge to expand the range of their favorite species.
In addition to their fecundity, white perch are aggressive feeders and often dine on the eggs of other species. In the late 1800s the pioneering fisheries biologists David Jordan and Barton Everman wrote: “When living in brackish water white perch feed on small fry of all kinds, young squid, shrimps, crabs and various other invertebrates, as well as the spawn of other fish, of which they are very destructive. Swarms of young perch, for instance, have been seen following the alewives around the shores of ponds on Martha’s Vineyard, eating their spawn as it was deposited.”
Over the decades, Tisbury Great Pond’s perch populations varied significantly in both numbers and size of fish. One of the reasons for this is that the pond, which is opened to the ocean on a regular basis by man, to — among other things — maintain the proper salinity for its oysters and soft-shelled clams and to allow alewives, an anadromous species, to enter and spawn in such places as Mill Brook and the Tiasquam River. Striped bass of all sizes also enter the pond in spring and summer and large numbers of young-of-the-year bluefish show up in June and July. Various species of shad are occasional visitors, as are dogfish, an oceanic species. The American eel, a catadromous visitor from the Sargasso Sea, is also present.
Clearly, white perch have stiff competition for food and habitat in Tisbury Great Pond. From time to time, enormous numbers of menhaden enter the pond from the ocean and are trapped there in winter when the pond closes. Chris Murphy of Chilmark says that the hordes of menhaden deplete the pond’s oxygen and that further depletion takes place when the menhaden die. Murphy netted the pond’s perch commercially for 25 years, calling it quits about 10 years ago. On the few occasions when he had observed vast schools of menhaden entering the pond in summer he found dead and decaying menhaden and white perch when hauling his seine the following spring. When that happened, he said, perch populations nose-dived for a year or two.
In past decades while duck hunting on the pond in winter when its opening to the ocean was closed, I sometimes saw young bluefish chasing baitfish among my decoys, and I occasionally spotted their carcasses strewn along the shore. I had always assumed that many of them couldn’t survive the cold water or the reduced salinity. I never thought of depleted oxygen levels which would also be hastened by ice cover in winter or hot, windless days in summer.
White perch are sensitive to depleted oxygen levels but are less threatened than bluefish and menhaden by fluctuations in salinity or water temperature.
At the moment, white perch are flourishing in Tisbury Great Pond and, come spring — perhaps as red-winged blackbirds carol from shoreside winterberry bushes – I will woo them with the spinning outfit that is already rigged for that purpose and hanging in one of my tool sheds.
Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury was for almost 40 years the outdoor columnist for The New York Times. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne. Later he became managing editor of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire and then a dock builder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard.
About the artist
Glenn Wolff’s career began in New York as an illustrator for clients that included the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York Zoological Society. Beginning in 1979, Mr. Wolff’s pen-and-ink illustrations accompanied the Outdoors column in a collaboration that delighted New York Times readers for 26 years.