Of the group of fish known as panfish, the White Perch has the distinction of being the most unusual. First, he's not really a Perch although in some ways he looks like one; biologists say he's really a Bass. Second, he sometimes grows so large he's a panfish only if you use a king-size frying pan. Third, he's "anadromous," which means he's equally at home in salt water or fresh water. He can live and breed contentedly in landlocked lakes which have no rivers connecting them with the ocean. And when you catch him there, he averages slightly over a pound in weight. But when his home is a river emptying into the ocean, each year he migrates to the salt water to spend a vacation there, then swims back to his river to spawn. And the salt air seems to give him an appetite because after his trip he may weigh as much as 4 pounds. This gain in weight in salt water is true of all "anadromous" fish such as the Salmon and certain strains of Trout, notably the western Rainbow Trout which goes to the sea and returns to his native river as a big "Steel-head."
The White Perch is slightly humpbacked like a Yellow Perch and his mouth is smaller than any Basses. These features are partly responsible for the confusion over his name. But his body is deeper and much chunkier, similar to a Bass. In freshwater, his color is silver with a greenish back but exposure to salt water bleaches the fish to an overall brilliant silver. It also alters the flavor, due principally to the different diets. A lake or river White Perch has the sweet, delicate taste characteristic of the fresh-water panfish; fresh from the sea he is firm-fleshed and flavorful and claimed by many anglers to be the tastiest of bay fish.
The East Coast rivers and lakes are his home, from Newfoundland south to the Carolinas and west to the Allegheny Mountains. In lakes, during summer and fall, he haunts the deepest holes and the drop-offs near underwater ledges and rocky bars. If you know there are White Perch in a certain lake, you're sure to find them in these deep spots. To discover where these spots are, ask the local fishermen or game warden or sound for them yourself with a heavy sinker tied to a heavy fish line. In spring these landlocked White Perch usually spawn in the largest streams that feed the lake, and then you'll find them in the same fast water that Trout like, even at the foot of rapids or waterfall if it is close to the lake itself. But seagoing White Perch aren't as easy to find. You won't find them at all while they're in the ocean. Where they go once they reach the Atlantic is a mystery no one has solved. They simply vanish! But they return during spring and summer, spawning in either the freshwater part of their river or in the "brackish" water where the salt water and fresh water mingle. They prefer this "brackish" water, and here the White Perch is not only large but a real tackle-buster, much stronger than his lake-reared relative. Look for him near the mouths of fresh-water streams that empty into the river, and in shallow bays which rise and fall with the tide. No matter where you catch him, however, either in fresh or salt water, the White Perch will give you lots of fishing fun because he has another happy characteristic of most panfish—he's a school fish, and when you catch one, you'll catch a dozen!
In fresh water, the White Perch feeds on conventional panfish fare: flies, insects, worms, small minnows, and crawfish. In brackish water, he'll take small minnow-like baitfish, small crabs and shrimp, and earthworms, sandworms, and bloodworms when you offer them. In a lake, he'll enthusiastically gobble artificial lures such as weighted flies, small spinners with feather-tail hooks, and spinning lures, all fished deep. If you use a fly rod, choose a glass one because this material isn't as likely to be damaged by the weighted flies as is split bamboo. It should be light, about 4 ounces, with a 4-pound-test untapered fly-leader. For a spinning rod, a monofilament line of the same strength will be adequate.
Almost all brackish-water fishing for White Perch is done with bait, whether the angler fishes from a boat or dock. And the method is invariably the old hit-or-miss variety. He tosses out his baited hook and waits for a school to come, but frequently it never does. Here's how you can beat the bait-fisherman every time. Use a 5-ounce spinning rod, an 8-pound-test monofilament line, and a small minnow-like silver spinning lure. By casting, you can cover more water areas to find the fish. A school of White Perch 50 yards away from a stationary or drifting baited hook won't see it, but they can't miss the spinning lure you cast beyond them and retrieve in front of their noses. And seldom will they be so filled with food that they'll let it go by. Even when the school is beyond your casting range, the splash of the lure every time it hits the water will attract the fish, not scare them away. Once you've drawn in the school, you won't have any trouble filling your bag. When they stop hitting, let the water rest for about a half-hour, then resume casting, this time with a different lure, one with red on it, and retrieve at a different speed. And if there are any bait-fishermen near you, make them thank you for helping them get their White Perch—it was your lure the fish were after!