Fishing quality isn't so much difficult to define as it is to measure, because there are so many factors that go into each fishing experience. Fishery researchers dealing in social sciences find that fishing quality is affected by a host of variables such as personal values, environmental setting, facilities, habitat, weather, and companionship. More obvious is the catch — species, size, and numbers. Harvest also is important for many anglers.
Fish and more specifically panfish quality, however, is but a component of fishing quality. When we see photos of giant panfish in this magazine, we appreciate the size of the catch — the fish-quality aspect. Trophy mounts hang as icons of fish quality, although they can also go beyond the catch by conjuring up memories of high-quality fishing experiences. An important distinction between fish quality and fishing quality is that fish quality can be measured more easily using direct measurements of fish size.
In the 1970s, Dr. Richard Anderson, considered a pioneer of modern recreational fishery management, along with his graduate student Dr. Steve Weithman, developed a fish-quality index using length and weight. The length component was scored based on how a fish's length compared to the world-record length for that species. At about 20-percent of world-record length, for example, a fish begins to offer recreational value, which then climbs steeply before leveling off at about 75-percent of world-record length.
Fish quality gives fishery biologists benchmarks for assessing sportfish populations. They can calculate what proportion of a population is composed of fish of certain lengths and compare that to what is considered desirable. In the 1970s, early applications of these ideas were proposed for largemouth bass and bluegill by Dr. Anderson. The term "stock" length was coined for the minimum length at which fish start to provide recreational value, 20 to 26 percent of world-record length, according to Weithman's curve. "Quality" length was assigned to fish at 36 to 41 percent of world-record length. Anderson and Weithman also defined stock and quality lengths for several coolwater fishes.
In the 1980s, Don Gabelhouse, then Kansas fishery researcher and now fish chief in Nebraska, also a contributor to In-Fisherman publications, expanded on Anderson's ideas by defining lengths for "preferred," "memorable," and "trophy" length designations. He chose the point on the curve at which it climbs most steeply (40 to 55 percent of world record length) as the preferred length. Memorable is where the curve begins to level off (59 to 64 percent), and trophy is where the curve barely rises once fish reach a certain length (74 to 80 percent). Gabelhouse proposed stock, quality, preferred, memorable, and trophy lengths, for numerous species, and more species have been added over the years by others.
Throughout the development of these length definitions, quality has referred to the minimum length of fish that most anglers like to catch. Most anglers prefer to catch something a bit bigger, hence the name "preferred." Most anglers remember catching an individual memorable-sized fish, and trophy is a size worthy of widespread acknowledgement.
Included here are lengthdesignations that have been defined for popular panfish species. If you were assigning lengths to these categories you might have come up with something different, depending on the growth potential of a species where you fish and how you personally value fish quality. Think about your favorite panfish species. What length do you consider quality? What size do you prefer to catch? What length makes an individual fish memorable to you?
Last spring, fishing on a TV filming outing on Lake Michigan with In-Fisherman Contributor Steve Ryan, I caught some of the biggest yellow perch of my life. The largest was 15¾ inches. I never had a target for what I'd consider a trophy perch, but I'd say now that 15 inches is a solid benchmark for me. How about you?
3 Devils Lake, North Dakota
This ever expanding perch mecca is again on the upswing for trophy-size perch. North Dakota Fish and Game reports that the lake's perch population is at the highest level since 2003. With strong year-classes from both 2006 and 2007, perch in the 10- to 14-inch range will make up a large percentage of the catch this year. Contact: Guide Jason Mitchell, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net; The Perch Patrol, 701/351-3474, perchpatrol.com
9 Lake Michigan, Indiana
Big water means plenty of opportunities to intercept roving schools of jumbo perch that can number in the thousands. High winds in spring have reduced angling pressure during the last two spawning cycles, and 2013 should be a banner year for fish in the 12- to 15-inch range. The prespawn bite starts in deep water over clay bottom during early spring, with fish moving to shallower rock and weededges in summer and fall. Contact: Capt. Ralph Steiger, 219/688-3593, captainsteiger.com
7 Finger Lakes, New York
Perch thrive in these 11 glacier-formed, deep, clear waters. Multiple lakes in close proximity allow for lake-hopping for beautifully colored perch. Seneca Lake draws much of the attention, but perch over 12 inches are in all of the lakes. Contact: Capt. John Gaulke, 607/319-0450, fingerlakesanglingzone.com
4 Glacial Lakes, South Dakota
With more than 50 lakes near the town of Webster, each year sees different lakes peaking for perch in the 9- to 13-inch range. Fertile waters from recent flooding help to ensure consistent good year-classes of perch. Bonus fish include a nice mix of crappies, bluegills, walleyes, and pike. Contact: Guide Cory Ewing, 605/929-3894, waubaylakeguideservice.com
1 Interlake, Manitoba
Situated between the mammoth waters of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, local fisheries range from natural valley lakes of 30 square miles, to shallow inland lakes of modest size. Fantastic perch fishing runs from early December through ice-out. Plenty of perch hit the 12-inch mark in these fertile lakes, and there is a good shot at 14- to 15-inchers. Contact: Dino Branfield, 204/362-2945, nelsonvilleoutfitters.com
10 Lake Erie, Ontario
Along with its 'walleye factory ' moniker, Lake Erie produces more perch than any other lake in North America. A hot bite exists in fall along Erie's north shore. Once fish are located, 50-fish daily bags are the norm. Manmade structures, including midlake gas wells and underground pipelines, concentrate massive schools, making the fishing reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Contact: Capt. Frank DiMarcantonio, 905/933-4834, niagarasportfishing.ca
8 Lake Gogebic, Michigan
Despite being the largest inland lake in the Upper Peninsula and producing more state angler award fish than any other fishery in the area, this trophy perch fishery somehow remains under the national radar. While not a numbers fishery, perch surpassing 2 pounds are caught each year, both during the open-water and hard-water seasons. Contact: Barry Drews, 906/842-3361, ninepinesresort.com
; Gogebic Lodge, 906/842-3321, gogebiclodge.com
5 Lake Simcoe, Ontario
Abundant freshwater shrimp and other small invertebrates allow this heavily fished lake in southern Ontario to continually produce good numbers and sizes of perch. While ice fishing generates the most angling pressure, some of the biggest fish are taken shortly after ice-out in shallow bays around Beaverton. Schools of big perch roam deeper water throughout summer. Contact: Guide Greg Klatt, 416/580-2541, profishntanglingservices.com
6 Lake St. Clair, Michigan
Lake St. Clair provides incredible summer and fall fishing for numbers of 8- to 12-inch perch. Target them just outside thick vegetation in 6 to 18 feet of water. By fishing shallower water, deep-water mortality among sorted fish isn't an issue. One hundred- to 200-fish days are common. Contact: Capt. Steve Jones, 586/463-3474, fishpredator.com
2 Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
A big-water favorite in central Minnesota, this year-round fishery puts out jumbos averaging 12 inches, if you know where to hunt them, and fish in the 15-inch range aren't out of the question. For those willing to put in the work to locate a mess of jumbos, the rewards can be huge. Contact: Guide Tony Roach, 763/226-6656, roachsguideservice.com