In this blog we talk about Lake Erie Yellow Perch in the western basin and the forage types they feed on. We also touch on the western basin of Lake Erie in general and how it translates to the yellow perch population and forage support.
Just like any other species of fish, the Yellow Perch of Lake Erie doesn't only eat one type of forage in Lake Erie. The type of forage available to these tasty morsels varies from the western end of the lake to the eastern end of the lake. Part of the reason the perch population is more dominant during the summer/fall months in the western end of the lake vs the central or eastern end of the lake comes down to the forage that is available. Many anglers don't fully realize how different Lake Erie is from end to end. The western basin of Lake Erie should almost be classified as a separate lake compared to the eastern end. Depths, water current, water clarity, wind speed and the effect lake currents have, bottom content, algae blooms, and many other factors help produce drastic differences between the different sections of the lake. All of these differences effect many other things beyond the yellow perch, such as the annual walleye migration, wave conditions, water temperatures, fish species prevalence and more. The differences the western end provides help support a better presence of the organisms in the food chain during the warmer water months.
In this blog, we are focusing on the forage presence and the diet of the yellow perch in the western basin of Lake Erie. The western basin of Lake Erie is by leaps and bounds, the shallowest part of Lake Erie. West of the Lake Erie Islands, the maximum depth with recent years of average water levels is around 34' of water. Once you get East of the Lake Erie Islands, the maximum water depths continue to grow the further East you go. The deepest waters in Lake Erie reach 210' deep and the average depth is 62'. With this data, it's easy to understand why the western basin should be looked at a little differently when compared to the central and eastern basins.
Image Credit: Navionics Chart Viewer
Now that we have touched on depth differences, we will look further into the forage in the western basin. To start, we will make it a point to remember that perch simply "eat things that eat things". This can be tricky to think about when we are just trying to fish but it is important to remember and also consider when planning a day on the water. The health of any ecosystem effects everything from the bottom to the top. Take something out of balance and everything changes. For the yellow perch population to be healthy, the lake must be healthy. Over the years, Lake Erie has continued to clean up in many ways, compared to many anglers memories when thinking back to the 70's and beyond. There have been many periods of time and various events that threatened the Lake Erie ecosystem, but it's currently thriving. Phosphorus reductions, algae blooms, zebra muscles, weather patterns and many other things have all played a factor in Lake Erie's changing ecosystem over the years. With that said, Lake Erie is still the dirtiest of the Great Lakes. Sidenote: Lake Erie is also the 11th largest lake in the world! The lake still battles algae blooms, which vary each year in size and severity, but it has still come a LONG way from where it was.
Image Credit: NOAA Coast Watch MODIS Imagery
We have learned that the western basin is the shallowest section of Lake Erie, but we will also add that it is the dirtiest. The shallow depths, wind patterns, water temperature, environmental impacts of city industrial operations and the Maumee river all play a factor in the clarity of the water in the western basin, specifically west of the Lake Erie Islands. Throughout the year, the clarity will be much dirtier when compared to the central and eastern basin. There is also a large difference in clarity in the western basin itself, when broken down. West of the islands is by far the worst. East of the Islands to the central basin line is much cleaner with the deeper water. The marshes found in the far western basin also play a small role in the water clarity, especially during the warmer water summer months. During the summer months, the waters west of the islands will show a stain or "tea color" tint. Water east of the islands will remain more of a clear blue/green color. All of the factors mentioned previously all play a roll in the water color and how it changes once it warms.
Lake Erie Western Basin Algae Bloom Starting
With the warming water and the clarity changing to more of a stain, this often leads to the dreaded algae bloom that was mentioned above. The algae bloom varies in severity, each year. The amount of rain we have each season, toxins in the water, temperatures and days with full sun can all impact the type and size of the algae bloom. Shown above is a picture taken in 24' of water SW of West Sister Island in the far western basin. This picture was taken in late July of 2021. If/when an algae bloom starts to really show in the western basin, its typically right around the time the yellow perch fishing starts to pick up, which is the end of July and beginning of August. You can still catch perch with the algae bloom, but of course anglers should be aware that some blooms are toxic and the full effects of these blooms are not something anyone wants to play with. We have kept perch that were caught during many algae blooms, but we don't have any real idea what that means. We would suggest everyone does their own research and makes their own decisions when fishing in/around an algae bloom. Some of the forage these yellow perch feed on actually feed on algae. We cannot say for certain that this correlation between algae blooms in the western basin is the reason for increasing perch activity and school migration to the far western areas, but it could be assumed to play a role in the grand scheme of things. It is something to think about though, since they happen almost in tandem each year.
Image Credit: NOAA GLERL Publications
Now that we have talked about the conditions of the western basin that normally exist during the "perch season" , we will focus on forage. As you will see in the above publications from NOAA GLERL, yellow perch feed on a variety of forage types in Lake Erie. Not all types of forage are listed on this poster, but most are. If you follow the food web/chain diagram from top to bottom, you will see that algae/phytoplankton plays an important role in this food chain. Keep in mind algae exists to some capacity during most warm water periods, in most bodies of freshwater. Green algae is an important part of the food chain in a healthy ecosystem. There are many other factors that must exist to go from healthy amounts of green algae being present to a full on algae bloom. We elaborated on this since algae plays such a large role in the health of the Lake Erie ecosystem and the food web chart above.
Studies done in recent years have shown that with the decline of emerald shiners, perch continue to adapt and change their diet. Of course, the health and changes to the ecosystem in general also drive change as it affects the type of food available and in what quantities for the yellow perch. This doesn't mean they do not seek emerald shiners, it simply means they are less abundant and they still gotta eat! When catching and cleaning fish the last 4 seasons, we have noticed a large increase in the amount of invertebrates the perch are consuming as compared to the vertebrates. During these last 4 years we have found lots of invertebrates in the yellow perch such as mayfly nymphs, gammarus, spiny water fleas, mollusks and occasionally zebra muscles. We have also found vertebrates in the perch such as small baitfish and young of the year hatchlings. Sometimes the fish are so full of forage that they spit up when you squeeze them during hook removal. You can also find evidence of this in your cooler or livewell. The fish cleaning table is the other area you will find out a lot about the diet, but many times it's digested or partially digested making it harder to tell as compared to them spitting it up.
What we should take away from all of this is that the forage that's available for the yellow perch changes over time, with changes to the ecosystem. Just like walleye fishing, we have all sorts of different lures, in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. This is due to the fact that the forage the walleye are keyed in on changes as the conditions, water temperature and general time of year changes. We must realize this and keep this in mind with perch. Sometimes the "same old same old" gets the job done, but sometimes change is good. If their diets are changing and evolving, so should our approach when targeting them. The 2018 and 2019 perch seasons were exceptionally low on numbers and action. These were the first two years we noticed an increase in the perch consuming the spiny water fleas. During those two seasons we would find massive schools of perch and pluck a few out here and there, but nothing like the numbers we were used to. The ones we did catch were absolutely packed full of the spiny water fleas. During this two year swing, anglers were competing with an over abundance of an available forage for the yellow perch to easily scoop up. The fleas aren't gone, but the 2020 and 2021 yellow perch fishing picked up substantially since the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
In summary, the western basin of Lake Erie has been the place to be the last few seasons for yellow perch numbers. The muddy bottom, shallow water conditions and warmer water temperatures just hold more fish. Their diets are changing and could continue to change as time continues. Having a variety of offerings is important and also a variety of approaches. Some of these changes in recent years could also help explain why our Perch Fly Rigs have been our go to on most days. They are a little different and sometimes that difference could equal a full cooler vs a partial cooler of fish. On the rare days they are feeding heavily and jumping in the boat you can catch them on about anything. On the days where the bite is tougher, these different rigs and finer details can all play a factor. With all this talk about the west end, we should note that perch can be found and caught in the central and eastern basin, but in much smaller quantities. Although, what they lack in quantities usually makes up for in size. When you are hunting for perch, just remember what you find and learn from spot to spot, trip to trip and year to year. All of the finer details help add up to a greater chance at success and filling the cooler with LAKE ERIE YELLOW GOLD on your future trips!