As the clock on the winter scoreboard wound down and trout and whitefish close, I spent the last day with good friends, Wil Wegman and Paul Kindy. Wil and I have spent the last 3 season closings together fishing and discussing the state of the lake. Both of us our very passionate about Lake Simcoe and we hash out what we see as potential pros and cons of the fishery.
It was one sloppy day out there with 4+ inches of water on the ice. Fishing was pretty good, not great, but we managed to ice some night whities, all naturals. One came home for dinner and that’s the last for some time. But with almost 3 ft. of ice the focus will turn to perch, which was our main topic of discussion. At the beginning of the season, I produced a video of my predictions for the season.
Two thirds of my forecast was pretty accurate. Whitefish abundant, although the bite was tougher, trout were much harder to catch but the ones that were caught were big as the trend for fewer but bigger fish continues. But my forecast for perch was dead wrong. It was not a great season. At best it was okay but average size was smaller for most. Both Wil and I pay attention to fishing reports from multiple sources. About 75% of the ice hounds that fish Simcoe come for the perch and there is no lack of reporting. The exceptional ice conditions allowed huge crowds to fish safety and travel anywhere. The lakesimcoemessageboard.com had fewer reports of great days, and more complaints about average size. A member posted a poll requesting votes for new regulations governing catch limits and size limits. It was interesting to see how many members would agree to a new daily and total possession limits much lower than it currently is.
We don’t have the science to back up our theory, but the observational evidence is now overwhelming. Observation and opinions from many that really know the fishery can sometimes be more valuable. The consensus was that big fish had reached a point of concern. Sometimes the science is simply too late. It takes years to produce data to support a trend and on Simcoe, there is “no” perch research. We have old creel surveys but there is no one to summarize it. Why would there be, its only the single largest economic impact of fishing on the lake. If it doesn’t have an adipose fin (common to trout and salmon families), our ministry is only mildly interested. Now, our ministry doesn’t have the funding to do research for perch. The budget for the OMNR has been reduced again as it is always the first target for any provincial cuts. Field workers can’t even get gas money to complete valuable rehabilitation projects. There is a travel ban. Valuable, knowledgeable, passionate field personnel are now pin to desks. This is another subject that just boils my blood.
Our friends south of the border in New York State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other states with perch fisheries do have data and most have more restrictive regulations. Our 50 per person per day and 100 possession limits look ridiculous compared to theirs. They not only have lower limits, but many have a size cap as well. In recent years, research has shown that in walleye, that the biggest fish produce the largest, ripest eggs and yield more and healthier fry. Perch are from the same family so in many cases, this should hold true for perch as well.
What Went Wrong?
With a lake that is full of food and a longer growing season, what has pressured the population? There are several stressors and no single one is to blame. We have underestimated the effects of cormorants. These birds are much better harvesters than us and they do most of this harvesting as perch are shallow to spawn and their eggs are hatching, and food is needed for the young. Perch are a primary target and they eat their weight every day.
Pike are booming right now. Pike spawn as the ice is just out. They remain shallow as the perch come in to spawn, so they have become more of an issue. Some of the hut operators tell me they just hang around the huts and wait, scaring the perch away from the huts.
But for all the natural predators, the huge number of visitors to our lake hunting renown jumbos is the problem. There are thousands and thousands of anglers and they are getting better at catching thanks to modern equipment and electronics. We have seen large coolers full of fish in the 10 to 14 inch range being taken by visitors every year. It is quite common to see 4 to 6 visitors haul 400 to 600 fish away multiple times per year. It is common to see locals that fish every day, take multiple large fish every day and pack the freezers or feed the neighborhood. Afterall, there is a never-ending supply, right? Apparently not.
I have been a denier of the collapse of the jumbo population and the effects of taking very large fish. I release many of my fish over 12 inches, but not because I believe they were critical to the healthy reproduction cycle. I always have thought keeping fish at the end of their life cycle might be more valuable than keeping 10 inch fish. After all, they were going to die soon. I release them out of respect for those that know more than me and have told me I should. Their argument is that the biggest fish have the highest yields and pass those aggressive feeding and growing genes on to new generations. My argument doesn’t hold water anymore. Fish are growing faster and those big old fish are not that old anymore. As the fish grow faster because of food supply and longer feeding season, many of these large fish have years of spawning ahead. Since there will never be a stocking program for pan fish, natural recruitment is all we have.
Big perch have always come easy for me. I know where to find them and I know how to catch them. At least I did. This year has even been a grind for me. More importantly, they have been tough for better perch nuts than me. Anglers I know who always get them and have the patience to finesse and catch even the most negative and wise big perch.
Some will argue that this isn’t necessary and that the fish have just moved, and the traditional areas have changed. That was my argument. Thing is, what can it hurt to bring our regulations more in line with current conservational wisdom from places that actually do research? How would it effect you if the limits were cut to say, 25 fish per day with a length cap at 12 inches?
Please give us your input. It might save this incredible resource.