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A little science goes a long way for anglers

A little applied science can go a long way for anglers looking to improve their chances of locating and catching their favorite fish.

Cleveland Metroparks fish biologist Michael Durkalec knows a thing or two about fish behavior. As a scientist, Durkalec has studied fish in classrooms, textbooks, laboratories and in the field. As an angler, he has amassed considerable practical experience reading sonar, locating bait and game fish, and tempting them to bite his hook.

His great knowledge bubbled to the surface recently as he and I discussed his success in limiting out on Lake Erie’s famous yellow perch. It’s safe to say Mike and his wife Elizabeth will enjoy a lot of perch dinners this winter, even while many moan the perch are in short supply in Erie’s central basin.

“The fall perch fishery in the central basin is a trophy season,” Durkalec said. “If large, trophy-size perch appeal to you, there is no better time to get them on Lake Erie than fall and early winter.”

He boated numerous 12- to 14-inch perch over the past two months from central basin waters, but acknowledged that anglers looking to stuff a cooler will not experience the fast action like in days gone by when 100-fish days were possible.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife would agree. A recent news release reported the 2021 Lake Erie yellow perch hatch was below average in the central basin. Poor hatches mean the overall populations from Huron to Ashtabula are low and bag limits are reduced.

Durkalec noted that while the numbers are low, the individual fish are big.

“Ten jumbo perch is a lot of meat and I don’t have to burn a ton of fuel to get to them because the jumbos are within a half-mile of the river mouths late in the season,” he said.

In fact, one of Erie’s best-ever Ohio perch was the 15-inch, 2-pound specimen Elizabeth Durkalec reeled up in October 2020.

“It’s big fish time when the water starts to get colder,” he said. “The big schools of central basin perch aren’t happening. Instead, I find mini schools, usually in 30 to 37 feet of water, off the mouths of rivers like the Cuyahoga, Black and Rocky.”

He said funneling created by the large break walls off Cleveland, Lorain and Huron – and further east off Painesville, Ashtabula and Conneaut – channels the current in a manner that makes the food perch prefer available and vulnerable.

When Durkalec finds baitfish, his scientist mind kicks in.

“I want to see bait down there, but not too much. I’ve learned that when the screen is showing a massive school of bait, the perch aren’t interested in my two little minnows.”

He does not fret when he fails to graph perch within the schools of bait. “In the cold water, they are usually on the bottom, so they’re hard to see on sonar.”

Durkalec rigs two rods – usually light-action baitcasters – with 10-pound braid and light monofilament leaders. He makes his own two-hook crappie rigs and free-spools the baited hooks to the bottom, where he imparts a soft jigging action to entice bites.

Emerald shiners are his preferred bait. He often uses small shiners, but will size up to larger minnows, too. “Jumbo perch are not afraid of larger shiners.”

Durkalec said perch are “flexible feeders.” His analysis of stomach contents shows the perch are eating emerald shiners, small shad, spiny water fleas, zooplankton, midge larvae and gobies. He knows of one perch stomach that included the tail of a cocktail shrimp.

Apparently the jumbos don’t just taste good, they also have good taste.

Jack Wollitz’s book, “The Common Angler,” explores the thrills and chills that make fishing fun. He likes emails from readers. Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com.

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