By Paul Lewis
Washington State is home to some of the United States’ most premier fisheries. We are all aware of our salmon, sturgeon, steelhead, and Halibut that made Washington fishing famous. Adding to this, lots of the nation is also aware of our incredible bass fishing! In 2019, Bassmaster.com published an article on the 100 best bass fisheries in the Western half of the U.S., with Potholes raking in at 14 overall, Lake Washington at 15 overall, and the mighty Columbia ranked at number 25! With 3 bass lakes in the top 30 of the entire West to add onto our already famous cold-water species, Washington is truly and angler’s paradise. Beyond the fame, however, lies our little-known perch fishery which is an incredible oversight. In last month’s newsletter, we highlighted this bountiful fishery and listed some fantastic ways to go fill a cooler with delicious white meat fillets. Overall, perch fishing in our state is gaining some fantastic popularity. With a growth in popularity, it is understandable that debate can arise about sustainable fishing, which is something every sportsman should care about. This month’s article acts as a part two on perch, looking deeper into the impacts perch have on one of Western Washington’s premier fishing lakes, Lake Sammamish.
To begin, it should go without saying that every angler should only keep what they plan to eat. Killing for the sport of killing is not only harmful to the fishery but is very unsportsmanlike. In Lake Sammamish, as with many other lakes in the State, it there is no limit on perch, leaving it up to the angler how many they would like to take home. In many cases, taking 100+ perch home is fantastic and can feed family, friends, and yourself for a handful of delicious meals. As long as there is justification that all fish taken will be consumed, keep them! On the other hand, if there is a likelihood that fillets will become freezer burnt and wasted, an ethical issue comes into play. Now, let’s look at perch as a species and specifically in this water.
Perch are one of the largest predators on our salmon, trout, and kokanee. they are voracious eaters and will eat anything in sight. Perch are eaten by the trout in the lake as well, however the number of Salmonidae species eaten by perch is significantly higher than the number of perch eaten by trout, meaning they have an adverse effect on the trout, and especially the Kokanee, which are under a recovery project on the lake due to very low numbers, and salmon, which are at crucially low numbers in this system.
Perch lay an average of 23,000 eggs per spawn and spawn 8 times in their lifetime. Based on the size of many of the fish we are catching, these perch have already had the potential to spawn 5-6 times. Let’s speculatively use a mortality rate of 90% (meaning 90% of all perch do not make it to maturity) we are looking at 11,500 perch per 1 female after 5 spawns. With how many perch are in lake Sammamish, we are looking at millions of fish per spawn per year. On top of this, perch are what is referred to as “group spawners” meaning they do not necessarily pair up male to female. 1 male can fertilize multiple groups of female eggs, adding to more ease in the spawning process.
With this in mind, we can think “hey great! This perch spawn will provide lots of food for the other species in the lake” and this is very true. However, there is an issue with this and another of Lake Sammamish’s happenings, the Muckleshoot Tribe’s warm water gillnetting program. Since 2015, the Muckleshoot Indian tribe has been gillnetting lake Sammamish in an effort to decrease the population of warm-water species that decimate the lake’s already fragile salmon runs. The tribe have taken out thousands of bass, sucker, cutthroat trout, pikeminnow, chub, Carp and other species. However, this is taking away a large percentage of the predators that feed on yellow perch who are (for the most part) able to simply swim through the net. Take a look at this information on just 2 months of their 2019 netting work. In March and April of 2019, the tribe netted 2850 fish, of which 97.5% were Sucker, Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass, pikeminnow, Brown bullhead, Black Crappie, and Cutthroat trout. Of the 2850 fish taken in these two months, a total of 10 were yellow perch, which equates to about 0.3% of the total take. Keep in mind, this is just 2 months of a netting program that has been in place since 2015.
What this information means is the Muckleshoot Indian netting is indeed working to protect salmon, but also is decimating the predators that keep the perch in a healthy balance with the rest of the lake. So, what we have is low fishing pressure on an already high biomass of perch, and a significant removal of their predators which is leading to even more growth and prosperity of perch in the lake.
Efforts are already in place to help reduce the perch population on Lake Sammamish, including a Trout Unlimited organized perch derby every September, which started in 2018. Overall, the perch biomass is in great shape, while the other fisheries such as trout and bass are impacted not only by anglers, but also by netting. The WDFW highly encourages the harvesting of perch across the state, as they are not only numerous and bountiful, but they can overrun fisheries and jeopardize our precious salmon.
With all this information, we can conclude that there is a healthy fishery on Lake Sammamish and one that is set to grow more with little pressure and the removal of their main predators. A sign of an abundance of perch in a fishery is a decrease in size of the perch, which, unfortunately, can dissuade anglers from targeting or keeping the perch. This being said, every angler should only ever keep what they can eat. Having fish sit in the freezer and burn is unethical and not sustainable fishing. As with every fishery, it is important to respect the resource and be an ethical sportsman.
Information on your favorite fishery can be found very easily with a few searches online. It is highly encouraged to understand the full scope of your favorite watershed, and how your target species impacts the lake, as well as what harvesting the species in numbers may do. Below is a nice article I found when working to understand this fishery, hopefully it can help guide your searching for your home waters.