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Ice Fishing Perch Lake

Big northern pike caught in Perch Lake

Perch Lake, in Jefferson County, was added to Perch River Wildlife Management Area in 1950. As part of an arrangement with the previous landowner, the lake was closed to public fishing for over 45 years. It was opened to ice fishing only in January 1995. Fishing is limited to the winter season (December 1 through March 1) to avoid possible conflicts with nesting waterfowl, to provide a refuge for migrating waterfowl, and protect other wildlife in the Perch Lake area.

Perch Lake is located approximately 10 miles north of Watertown N.Y. It is the source of the Perch River, a low gradient stream which flows about 13 miles southwest to Lake Ontario. This 545 acre lake is shallow, with a maximum depth of 12 feet and is very productive. The lake bottom has a simple, bowl-like structure, with deep silt adjoining the wetlands and sand elsewhere. Major components of the fish community include northern pike, largemouth bass, brown bullhead, black crappie, pumpkinseed, bluegill, yellow perch, and golden shiners. Only northern pike and yellow perch are harvested to any significant degree.

Nearly all northern New York waters supporting northern pike populations are, and historically have been, open to both ice fishing and open water fishing. Perch Lake provided a rare opportunity to examine the impact of ice fishing alone on a previously unexploited northern pike population. The Perch Lake ice fishery was studied by DEC and Cornell University from the opening in 1995 through the 1999 season.

Initial interest was very high due to the nearly unique opportunity to fish essentially unexploited sport-fish populations. Press coverage of the opening of this area after legal closure for over 45 years increased interest among local and non-local anglers. Much of the initial interest was focused on the presence of large northern pike, the size of which had grown to mythical proportions.

High catch rates for large northern pike were achieved during that first open ice fishing season, with pike over 39 inches being caught, but declined rapidly after the first few weeks. From 1995 through the 1999 season, interest in fishing the lake was clearly influenced by changes in the quality (particularly catch and harvest rate) of northern pike fishing. Yellow perch fishing at Perch Lake was not considered exceptional by anglers. Most perch caught, especially after the first season, were incidental to pike fishing.

The Perch Lake northern pike population responded to angling pressure as expected. Since pike were being caught, there was a decrease in the lake's pike population and corresponding increased fish growth rate. Fishing effort dropped off as the pike population and size declined; however, due to the high productivity of the system, Perch Lake continues to provide above average northern pike fishing. Although very large pike are now rare, the average northern pike harvested in 1999 was almost 24 inches (minimum legal size = 18 inches), only a little smaller than the 25 inch average fish during the opening season.