White Perch are one of the most common fish you can catch in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers. From the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, down south to the tidal rivers of Virginia, White Perch thrive. They don’t get to huge sizes, but they are another honest fish that takes flies aggressively and fight above their weight class.
Starting in winter, White Perch can be found in deep water throughout the lower reaches of the Chesapeake’s tidal rivers. In this places, they can be fished by jigging or bottom fishing with bait. For fly fisherman, most winter White Perch are caught at warm water power plant discharges in the months of December through February.
In early March, these fish usually make long runs up rivers, creeks, and streams to spawn. Along the way, they are eaten by striped bass, who make their spawning runs around the same time. These fish can be caught on fly at this time, often mixed in with shad and striped bass.
By April, the spawned-out fish spread out throughout rivers and creeks, taking up residence on oyster bars, creek and river channel edges. They’ll live and feed in these locations until the water warms into the 60’s and submerged grasses grow along the waters edge.
Once the grass is in place, usually in May, killifish and most importantly grass shrimp fill this habitat, and the Perch begin to split time between their channels, oyster bars, and other under water structure as well as living along the edges of shoreline grasses.
June through September brings the best Perch fishing of the year, and a sink tip fly line and a small weighted marabou fly in white will produce dozens of perch cast right along the edges of shoreline grasses. This is a great time of year to take a canoe and kayak out in any brackish creek on the bay and chase these fish, and because they reproduce in these waters so rapidly, keep a few for dinner. The fish are usually very active in the summer, but when the sun is high, look for shaded pockets of water with grass beds. The Perch here will feed actively even in the middle of the day.
October and November are the best times of year to catch the biggest White Perch. The fish in the shallows will primarily be minnow hunters (eating menhaden, silversides, anchovies, and killifish) once the grasses have died off, and they are larger. 10″-15″ perch are the norm, and a slightly larger fly pattern is a good bet. These fish will often be feeding in the same locations as sub-adult striped bass.
It’s hard to beat a clouser minnow for fishing most species around the Chesapeake Bay, and White Perch are no different. White Perch love the jigging action of a clouser, and they typically will not take flies on the surface. Killifish and shrimp both normally spend time along the bases of grass stalks, and that is where you should be fishing your fly. I like to tied very small bucktail clousers in all white, or more recently, use UV sparkle dubbing spun on a small hook to make a shrimp like blob of color and flash. It works very well, and is very quick to tie.
Another fly pattern that works great is the Tommy’s Torpedo, a local Virginia pattern tied for shad but works great on Perch. It stands out, has a lot of flash, and produces. It’s a good pattern to throw on a smaller fly rod, especially in size 8.
3wt through 6wt rods are best, with 5 and 6 weight rods ideal for throwing sinking heads (150 grain) for fish in spring and winter. Summertime fishing is perfect for your 3wt and 4wt rods, and putting a fast sinking polyleader on the end of a floating line will get you in the game. Add a 3 foot section of 10lb test to the polyleader and tie on a small shad fly or clouser. These fish aren’t leader shy.
How and Where to Fish
As discussed in the “seasons” section, these fish may be deep or shallow, depending on the time of year. For deep water fish, cast sinking lines over likely holding structure, and strip back with foot long strips. I like a strip-strip-strip-pause cadence, much like how you fish for striped bass. Because these fish eat smaller bait, your fly should not be shooting away from them in 3 and 4 foot strips.
For shallow water fishing, I set myself up to float along a section of shoreline, and make accurate casts to the edge of the grass. Let the fly sink a couple seconds, and then begin your retrieve. The fish usually hit within a few feet of the grass.
These fish do like clean water, so find an area nearby where the water quality is best and fish there. In some areas, the summer may bring poor water quality and algae blooms, and those are areas not worth fishing.