LAKE WACCAMAW — The windless morning made the water so slick it captured the image of the sky like a mirror. A single boat shattered the illusion of empty endlessness, drifting slowly into view through the humid haze.
Small fish broke the surface around the boat as a pair of anglers cast small lures to them. One of them had been trolling with heavy boat rods for the largest game fish the state the week before. Today, he was whipping the water with a flimsy spinning rod, trying to catch one of the smallest.
“I come once a year to catch white perch,” said Bill Boone, a 64-year-old Hatteras resident. “Catching white perch is a big difference from catching blue marlin. Last week I had two blue marlin over 600 pounds to the boat and I was fishing from a 37-foot sport fisherman.”
On this day in early July, the boat was a 17-foot Carolina Skiff, owned by the other angler, Rick Neisler. Boone had married Neisler’s second cousin, so now he was “family.” He made the five-hour drive from Hatteras to celebrate Independence Day week, topping off the holiday with a fishing trip.
“We’ve caught 15 white perch so far,” said Neisler, 55, of Lake Waccamaw. “On Father’s Day, I fished with my son and we caught 85. Twenty-five of them were 12 inches or better.”
A white perch must be 12 inches or longer or weigh at least one pound to qualify for an award from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Angler Recognition Program (NCARP). That shows a 12-incher is an exceptional catch.
“In Lake Waccamaw, white perch can go up to 12 or 14 inches,” Neisler said. “Most of them are six to eight inches and the smaller fish make the best eating.”
In most manmade reservoirs, white perch reproduce so quickly they become overabundant. The fish become stunted, or very small for their ages, because they outstrip the food supply for themselves as well as for game fish species like bass and crappie. However, at Lake Waccamaw, white perch are native and therefore more in balance with the ecosystem. The fish are anadromous, migrating from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. Lake Waccamaw, a natural Carolina bay lake, is headwaters to the Waccamaw River. A low dam holds the water a couple of feet higher than the lake’s natural elevation. However, springtime floods allow white perch to swim past the dam.
White perch prey on small baitfish and Lake Waccamaw has several species of small fish found nowhere else. The lake’s larger, toothier predators such as bowfin, longnose gar and chain pickerel are also better equipped than the predatory fish that dominate inland reservoirs to overcome the prickly fins and gill spines of white perch to feed on them, which helps keep their numbers in balance. The Commission recognizes the enormous reproductive potential of white perch because there is no size or bag limit for the species.
Despite the early hour, the air temperature was approaching 90 degrees. However, scorching heat that can drive anglers off the water is perfect for catching white perch. High water temperatures send white perch to the surface.
“I find the fish bubbling at the surface, then start casting,” Neisler said. “I mark places where I catch them with a GPS so I can come back to the same spot another day.
“I use small crankbaits to catch them and have certain lures I like to use. But I also try new lures all the time because white perch will strike anything small and shiny.”
The anglers were using ultra-light spinning rods spooled with 4-pound test line. They hooked white perch often, hauling them aboard, dangling from their rods. Smaller fish went back into the water while eating-sized fish splashed down in the live well.
“Some fishermen think white perch school according to size so they look for schools of larger fish,” Neisler said. “But I keep fishing in the schools of smaller fish and catch the bigger fish by switching to a bigger lure that gets down below the smaller fish. The smaller fish are more aggressive so they usually get hooked on small lures before they can get down deep enough to catch the big ones.”
“I like fishing for them because the action is non-stop,” Boone said. “It isn’t like offshore trolling where you have to ride a long way, then might have to wait a long time between strikes.”
To clean a big catch of white perch for a family fish fry, Neisler uses a stainless steel drum cleaner to remove the scales. Then he heads and guts the fish.
“I can scale 100 white perch in 20 minutes with a drum cleaner I bought from Cabella’s,” Neisler said.
“I use House Autry Seafood Breader and fry them in peanut oil. Sometimes I spice them up with Texas Pete hot sauce before breading them.”