Every angler experiences it at some point—becoming haunted for life by the one that got away. Lord knows how big the leviathan was, but the angler’s imagination will invent torturous estimates each time the tale is recounted. I have my own stories of lost stripers that must have weighed 50, 60, 70 pounds. One was probably a tail-hooked shark, but my imagination unapologetically asks, “What if?” and it always will.
One specific fish took the cake years back. Not only did it leave me with a bittersweet tale, but it also changed my worldview entirely. I had disliked the winter cold my entire life until I hooked this fish. Now I look forward to those dark and desolate days all year—the harsher the conditions the better. I daydream about that fish often, and my REM cycles regularly beckon the beast at night.
When I share the story, I feel the listener’s doubts grow as I elaborate. The suspicion climaxes as I reveal my capture and release of a world-record white perch. I caught the fish and held it in my hands. I stood victorious after a ridiculous fight, the hardest fight any white perch has ever fought. I measured it against my rod, called my friend to tell him about it, and he was on his way to see it. He never did see it, though; nobody did. I didn’t take a picture of it before I released it.
I had no idea I was holding a world record at the time, but there was no question that this was a special fish. Its proportions can only be described as “mythical.” She was pre-spawn—full of eggs and about to burst. The 18-incher I’d measured earlier in the day paled in comparison. The word “trophy” fails to portray this fish. She was godly. Ever since, I’ve been called to the snow-covered brackish banks. I’m consistently lured into the year’s worst weather, seeking a rematch, seeking proof, seeking that incomparable feeling when I know I’ve struck gold.
In retrospect, the time spent toiling through blizzards doesn’t feel like it really transpired. All the frozen toes and tender fingertips seem like short-lived intangibles, just as fleeting as the fish I’d forsaken. That was nine years ago, and I still remember the feel of the fight better than I do the taste of last night’s dinner. I feel like I’m in limbo, and I’ve been here ever since I caught that fish.
A few months after graduating from college in 2013, with the “real world” looming, my good friend introduced me to the striped bass. It took one fight to realize that “surfcasting” was the purpose I sought, something to bind me to the brine for the bulk of the year. Fishing was all I could think about, so on December 16 of that year, the day after striper season closed, I began to hit the books.
White perch are not actually members of the perch family. They belong to the temperate bass family, which also includes Morone saxatilis, the striped bass.
Perch are schooling fish and share many of the same habitats as striped bass, although perch remain in Long Island’s back bays and marshes; they rarely venture into the open ocean. Spawning occurs in the early spring when perch search out low-salinity rivers with sand and gravel bottoms over which they release their eggs.
The official world record weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces, and was caught from the Wachusett Reservoir in 2016. The author has no doubt that there’s a larger perch swimming somewhere in a Long Island backwater.
I spent the bulk of my first—and subsequently only—offseason researching my newfound passion. I became a regular at a few libraries, absorbing the wisdom of local and regional authors who spent their leisure the same way I did. I wanted to live idyllically like Frank Daignault and boil surfcasting down to a science like John Skinner. I would dig up obscure scholarly articles and study ecological surveys for the waters I fished. Even anecdotes from a 19th-century farmer’s journal proved useful.
Months later, I had ingested enough literature to make a law student seem lackadaisical. The only thing that could scratch my itch was putting this new knowledge to work. By mid-March, the backwaters had thawed after a brutally frigid winter, and though I didn’t expect to catch any fish, I needed to cast a line and hone my bucktailing technique.
My ¼-ounce chartreuse bucktail got whacked on the first cast. Ten casts later, I had ten hits and no fish. Recognizing the need for a smaller hook to catch fish, I tied on an 1/8-ounce Kastmaster. I couldn’t cast it very far with 20-pound braid and 30-pound leader, but it didn’t matter because the fish were everywhere. They were smacking the tin every cast, and every fish was a cookie-cutter, all-you-can-eat, 8-inch white perch. These little rapscallions hardly bent my rod, but the decisive thump I felt every time one found my lure was exactly what I was looking for.
The perch’s proclivity to chew so actively in frigid water temps was an exciting prospect. Perhaps they chewed all winter and, if so, I could quell any cabin fever…I could even fish every single day of the year if I wanted. In fact, that’s exactly what I did. The next day, those fish were gone, though, and I never saw them again. A few weeks later, I gave up and started chasing stripers.
It took years of actual wading before I had a decent grasp on spring striper fishing. The summer doldrums were similarly troublesome, until they weren’t. The fall was absolutely perfect for me right off the bat, though. I spent nearly all my time on the ocean, so I had a front row seat for the entire fall run.
And, the reading I did that winter helped me make some good decisions, like putting myself in a wetsuit on Montauk Point during an October nor’easter. I pulled a 31-pound bass out of that maelstrom just a short while after it pulled me off my rock into the water. I stuck it out until December 15, given the lore of a late-season herring bite. On the final day of striper season, herring invaded the surf on my beach. I caught five of them and took them an hour west to Robert Moses Park to use as bait. I caught and released 14 stripers in the low 30-inch range, and went into the “offseason” on a very high note.
As striper season waned, I began putting more time back at the white perch location. After Thanksgiving, I made sure to check in at least once a day. Every time, I was skunked.
Meteorologists were forecasting a nor’easter in the final days of that year. Hardcore surfcasters relish such weather, and hundreds trudge to the front lines to fight hungry fish and mean conditions from Montauk’s rocks. The fishing could be the best of the year if all the necessary factors aligned.
I’d learned that the fishing can be just as good in other places during a nor’easter. Someone had told me about good bass caught at a number of jetties during the October storm, which implied that nor’easters weren’t just a Montauk thing but a general activation switch for fish to feed. When I learned of the incoming system, scheduled to strike on New Year’s Eve, I was excited by the potential for excellent fishing.
The New Year’s Eve blizzard made the October nor’easter feel like a warm shower. Frigid 40-mile-per-hour crosswinds stung the side of my face. Wind-drawn tears quickly turned to frost on my eyelashes. I called it an early day at work and headed to my perch spot with little hope.
I cast my 1/8 ounce Kastmaster underhand to mitigate the bow in my line. If the lure’s trajectory was too high, the wind caught the line and skipped the tin across the surface into the reeds. This mishap occurred on my first few casts, but then I got a good cast off and shut the bail quickly. I let my lure sink for a few seconds before I began my retrieve. All I knew about my target was that it tended to hug the bottom. Before my lure even got that low, I felt a hard whack. I set the hook and came tight to the biggest perch of my life. My beefy tackle subdued the fish quickly, and I put it on the tape. It measured 16 inches from nose to tail and was fully laden with eggs. Furthermore, this fish appeared to be eating well. I figured it was around 2.5 pounds, which turned out to be the average size of the fish I caught the following few days. At sunset, the fish quit chewing and I stopped fishing.
Rigging for White Perch
Given the size of white perch, most fishermen use ultra-light or light tackle when targeting them. Line of 6- to 8-pound test is usually sufficient, and it helps to cast smaller offerings to fool them.
White perch can be reliably caught on bait, including nightcrawlers, grass shrimp, and mummichogs, but they are often aggressive enough to be taken on artificial lures.
Bouncing 1/16- to 1/8-ounce white or chartreuse marabou jigs or 2- to 3-inch chartreuse or pink twister tails on 1/8-ounce leadheads will account for a good share of perch. Adding some scent to the offering by putting a piece of nightcrawler on the jig can help convince picky perch to strike.
Lures with flash are also big perch producers. Spinners are very effective in shallower waters, and in deeper waters, spoons of 1/8 to ¼ ounces work well. Select a lure that can be fished near the bottom at a slow to moderate retrieve without dragging.
I skipped work the following day to wake up early and return to my perch spot. Carpe diem. It was even colder, it was snowing, and the wind persisted. I never thought I’d be fishing in such foul weather, but I broke my personal best on my first cast. It was a 17-inch fish, but I brought only three more fish onto the bank before my reel seized up entirely. The cheap grease inside it had frozen between the gears, so I ran to the store for an upgrade and got back on the water. Shortly after my return, I broke my personal best once again. This was my first 3-plus-pounder, measuring 18 inches with a bulging belly. I released it and called my friend, Matt; because this bite felt too special not to share. He said he’d get there as soon as possible.
After the call, I quickly realized the shortcomings of braided line in frigid weather. My 10-pound test had absorbed water and frozen to itself around the reel’s spool. When I tried to cast, the weight of my 1/8-ounce tin wasn’t enough to break the ice, so I headed back to the store to buy some heavier lures. I’d later learn the solution to frozen line was switching from braid to fluoro or mono rather than heavier lures. My plan was to cup the spool and blow hot air on it after every cast. It was a ridiculous plan, but it worked just well enough to keep me fishing.
The gales had strengthened while I was away. The 1/8-ounce Kastmaster could no longer cut through the wind and the bow in my line was unmanageable. The fish were schooled up just outside of casting range so I had no choice but to tie on a ¼-ounce tin, even though I thought the hook was too big for a perch’s mouth. The lure flew to the far bank, sank quickly to the bottom. That was part of the method: lift, reel in my slack, pause, repeat. Allowing the lure to flutter near the bottom seemed crucial to the presentation.
I hardly even felt the pickup, and the fish practically ignored the hookset. My rod bent over as I pulled back, but I budged nothing. Thinking I’d snagged something on the bottom, I was startled when my line began to move. It was a remarkably calm and controlled run that pulled my line terrifyingly tight. My drag sang as the fish ran for cover. Not a single fish had taken drag before this one, and certainly, none of them had made me anxious about my gear’s fortitude. She ran for the reeds, but I managed to turn her head at the last second (but collected no line). The fish swam in a perfect semicircle for the reeds on the other side, keeping my line frighteningly tight, but I turned her again at the last second. The fish was pulling too hard to be a fair-hooked perch, so I assumed I had snagged a giant perch in the side. I reeled when able, and after two more of those crescent-shaped runs, I managed to lift her off the bottom, away from any obstructions. I slid her onto the bank and gasped. The treble hook was right in her lip, and she was tremendous.
I would have thought time had frozen if the snow hadn’t kept falling. I was completely dumbfounded. This white perch dwarfed all the other perch I had caught during this frenzy. It was inches longer than my 3-pounder, heavy with eggs, and had a belly fit to burst from whatever it had been eating. The length was astounding, and its girth was surreal. I guessed 20 inches and 4 pounds. In fact, it was so stupendous that I questioned whether it was even the same species (it was).
I pulled out my phone to take a picture of this trophy. I clicked the Photos icon, and the app opened after about ten seconds. I aimed the phone at the fish lying next to my rod and clicked the shutter button. The loading symbol appeared as my phone buffered, but despite the half-full battery, the device just couldn’t stand the extreme cold, and it died. I wasn’t sure if the picture had saved, but my intent was to release the fish. Matt would arrive in about 20 minutes, but I couldn’t wait. I grabbed her lip, dipped my hands in the ice-cold water, and held the fish under as she regained her strength. I released her, and she gently meandered away from the bank. As she disappeared, I floated back down to reality.
After Matt showed up and we caught a few more 15- and 16-inchers, I went home and plugged in my phone. When it turned back on, it did so slowly, and the icon reaffirmed that I had a half-full battery. I opened up my photos, and the most recent picture was one of my dog. That trophy perch would be nothing more than a memory.
The next day, I went back and caught myself another mess of perch to 17 inches. My friend Kenny joined me for the fiasco, saying it was the best perch fishing he’d ever experienced, and took home a few slabs for the table. The water froze that night, and the fish were gone by the time it thawed a few days later.
I returned to this specific spot almost daily for four years, in all four seasons, hoping to luck into the same situation once again. The worse the weather, the stronger my desire was to be there. Eventually, I branched out, looking for leviathans in other waters. I found similar perch frenzies elsewhere, but the caliber of fish was always less. Regardless, I learned much about my target in the pursuit. I returned to the trophy spot last year and was able to catch my first perch there since that great New Year’s Eve bite. It had taken eight years. I have learned to catch fish somewhat consistently there, and I hope that every bite or bobber-down is “the one.”
I’ve spent hundreds of hours alone, cold, hungry for redemption, all to hone my craft so I’m able to hold that fish again. My level of capability and the hours I devote to the hunt won’t be enough, though; luck will be the ultimate determinant of whether I ever come across another such fish. Even if I never do, she’ll remain at the forefront of my mind until I make my final cast.