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True Perch

Note: This article first appeared in the February/March 1990 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Authors- Paul McKeown and Eileen C. Stegemann. Third in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

The True Perch Of New York

The true perch of New York State include some of the best tasting and most popular freshwater fishes. As a family, they are widely distributed, adaptable to a wide range of habitats, and fun to catch on rod and reel. In addition, the less known members of the perch family, the darters, are probably the most colorful freshwater fish in North America.

True perch are spiny-rayed fish which have one or more sharp spines on their fins. While they are quite variable in appearance, they all are slender in body shape, have two dorsal (back) fins, and one anal fin. True perch can be separated into two groups: larger perches and smaller perches.

The Larger Perches

Yellow perch, walleye, and sauger are larger perches that prefer the water of large streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Popular gamefish, they are prized by anglers not only for their scrappy nature, but for their delicious taste, as well. The largest members of New York State's perch family, walleye, can exceed ten pounds.

Yellow perch, walleye, and sauger reproduce (spawn) during early spring. Walleye are the first to spawn, followed by yellow perch, and then sauger. Adults migrate into tributary streams or the shallows of lakes and randomly release their eggs over the bottom. Unlike some other species of fish, such as bullheads or bass, larger perch build no nests and give no parental care to their eggs or young.

picture of bluepike
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A former member of this group, the extinct blue pike, was a subspecies of the walleye. Once abundant in Lake Erie, blue pike supported important commercial and recreational fisheries. Although similar to walleye, blue pike could be distinguished by the lack of yellow skin pigment and larger eyes. In addition, blue pike frequented deeper offshore areas and had different spawning habits than walleye.

The Smaller Perches

The smaller perches consist of 18 species of darters - small, colorful, short-lived fish especially adapted to life on the stream bottom. Their name comes from their habit of darting from place to place. Because of their small size and habitat preference, darters are not actively fished for and rarely seen by the public. Unlike their cousins the walleye, yellow perch, and sauger, darters do not have a well-developed swim bladder (used for floating) which is helpful to their life on the stream bottom. While this feature does allow darters to easily remain on bottom, it requires that they physically swim up from the bottom, rather than float.

Reproduction for darters differs from other perch. Spawning occurs from late March through June. Males become brilliantly colored and perform elaborate dances while courting females. Eggs are carefully placed in preselected locations and are often protected by the males until hatching.

In New York State, the true perch family numbers 21 members: yellow perch, walleye, sauger, and 18 species of darters. In this article, darters will be treated as a single group. For more detailed information on perch, refer to, "The Inland Fisheries of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith. Two additional sources of information on darters are "The Handbook of Darters," by L.M. Page, and "The American Darters," by R.A. Kuehne and R.W. Barbour.

Yellow Perch

picture of yellow perch
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Yellow perch are important panfish in New York State. They are relatively easy to catch and are often one of the first fish caught by youngsters and beginners.

While yellow perch are found throughout the State in a variety of habitats, they prefer shallow, weedy protected sections of rivers, lakes, and ponds. Ranging in length from six to 12 inches, yellow perch are easily distinguished from other perch by the five to nine black vertical bars on their yellow sides.

Yellow perch spawn in April or May. Adults migrate into shallow weedy sections and randomly release long strings (up to seven feet) of transparent eggs. The egg masses eventually adhere to submerged vegetation, where they remain until hatching.

Yellow perch are most active in the morning and evening. They eat a variety of organisms, including aquatic insects, crayfish, and fish.

Yellow perch are very tasty and are popular year-round, especially with ice fishermen. When handling the fish, care should be taken to avoid their sharp spines and sharp gill plates.

Walleye

picture of walleye
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Walleye, the largest members of the perch family, often exceed 20 inches in length. Although not as widely distributed as yellow perch, walleye are found in every major watershed in New York State. They are important gamefish and provide major recreational fisheries in lakes Erie, Oneida, Chautauqua, and Champlain.

Walleye are sometimes called walleye pike, yellow pickerel, yellow pike, or pike perch and have been incorrectly identified as a member of the pike family. A quick look at the dorsal fins of the walleye (two fins) and the pike (one fin) shows that the two are not from the same family.

Walleye are similar in body shape to both sauger and yellow perch. However, walleye can be identified by the dark spot found at the bottom of their first dorsal fin and their large canine teeth. Saugers lack the dark spot and yellow perch lack the large teeth. Most walleye are yellow, but occasionally a variation occurs which gives the fish a blue color. Called "blue phase," these fish are not blue pike.

Walleye prefer the deep water sections of large lakes, streams, and rivers. They have large, light-sensitive eyes that help them locate food in poor light. To protect their eyes from the sun, walleye stay in sheltered or deep water during the day and move into shallower water at night. They are voracious predators and use their large canine teeth to catch a variety of minnows and the young of other fishes. Yellow perch are often a favorite meal.

Spawning takes place from mid-March to early April. Adult walleye randomly release their eggs over rocky bottoms of lake shoals or gravel bars in rivers and streams. The eggs fall between the rock crevices to hatch.

Walleye are popular sportfish and play an important role in New York State's tourism industry. Anglers and non-anglers alike hold walleye in high esteem due to their excellent taste. DEC has produced a walleye management strategy for the State focusing on reestablishing and enhancing walleye fishing opportunities. DEC also uses walleye to help control yellow perch and gizzard shad populations. Walleye are effective predators of these two species and, therefore, keep their populations from becoming too large.

Sauger

picture of sauger
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In New York State, sauger are found only in the Lake Champlain system. Like their cousins the walleye, they prefer the deeper waters of lakes, reservoirs, and large rivers.

Sauger are often mistaken for walleye. Both have large canine teeth and the same general body shape; however, saugers lack the dark spot found on the bottom of the walleye's first dorsal fin. In addition, sauger have three to four saddle shaped blotches on their sides. While sauger do not grow as large as walleye, they occasionally reach 18 inches in length.

Spawning takes place from May to June. Like walleye, sauger randomly release their eggs over rocky bottom. The eggs hatch between the rocky crevices.

Sauger are a popular sportfish. They are good fighters and are excellent to eat.

Darters

Darters are among the most colorful freshwater fish in the world and display very interesting breeding habits.

Although darters live in a variety of habitats including lakes and ponds, most prefer streams with clear water. Darters are small (less than five inches long) and perform unique "darting" behavior along the stream bottom. They eat a wide range of small aquatic insects and crustaceans.

Unlike the larger members of the perch family, spawning by darters is an intricate process. Breeding males are brightly colored and do elaborate displays. The fish select specific locations and the females deposit individual eggs. Male darters will often protect the eggs and young.

While darters are too small to be actively pursued by anglers, they are becoming increasingly popular in the international aquarium business. This fact, combined with their specific habitat requirements and sensitivity to changes in water quality, has led to a decrease in certain darter populations. Today, three species of darters (eastern sand darters, bluebreast darter, and gilt darter) are considered endangered in New York State.

Note: For artwork of various darter species, click below:

picture of rainbow darter
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of rainbow darter
picture of johnny darter
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of johnny darter

picture of spotted darter
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of spotted darter
picture of greenside darter
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of greenside darter

picture of variagate darter
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of variagate darter
picture of Eastern sand darter
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of Eastern sand darter

picture of Iowa darter
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of Iowa darter
picture of channel darter
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of channel darter

picture of log perch
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of log perch

Perch and People

Fish populations, like other animals, are influenced by many factors. Some species, like certain members of the perch family, are more sensitive to changes in their environment than others. Slight variations in the water flow, clarity, or temperature can mean a decrease in or even the disappearance of a fish population.

One member off the perch family, the blue pike, was once abundant in the eastern basin of Lake Erie. During the early to mid-1900s, however, a combination of overfishing, pollution, predation by rainbow smelt on young blue pike and, possibly, cross breeding with walleye, led to its extinction.

Several species of darters have also been damaged by human activities. Since darters are particularly sensitive to changes in water quality and instream habitat, pollution and increased turbidity from people's use of surrounding lands has caused several darter populations to decline.

To protect these darter species, as well as other sensitive fish and wildlife species, it is important to safeguard habitat. DEC has programs to monitor and control discharges into streams. While progress is being made, these programs will have to continue to make sure other fish and wildlife species do not end up like the blue pike.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's perch:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
Yellow Perch Perca flavescens
Walleye Sander vitreus
Sauger Stizostedion canadense
Eastern Sand Darter Ammocrypta pellucida
Greenside Darter Etheostoma blennioides
Rainbow Darter Etheostoma caeruleum
Iowa Darter Etheostoma exile
Fantail Darter Etheostoma flabellare
Spotted Darter Etheostoma maculatum
Johnny Darter Etheostoma nigrum
Variegate Darter Etheostoma variatum
Logperch Percina caprodes
Channel Darter Percina copelandi
Blue Pike (recently extinct) Stizostedion vitreum glaucum

More about True Perch:

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