The cell buzzed with a hot-bite urgency while I was loading a pair of rods and knee-high boots in the back of the van. One was an ultralight; the other a medium action. The plan was to probe a pair of shallow ponds in southern Ocean County that are havens for pickerel and bass, but also house decent populations of buster bluegills. I hoped that a succession of 55-plus-degree days had sent chow-time signals.
“Forget them. Get down here to the Game Preserve and we’ll show you some serious perch fishing,” said an already impatient Capt. Al Crudele, a South Jersey-based charter skipper. He, along with his sons, Mike and Jimmy (built-in mates known as the “Cru Crew”), slake their sweet and brackish water thirsts in March before the daily blackfish charters commence in April.
Crudele noted that the tide would be perfect in about an hour and a half, leaving me enough time to get there and meet the trio farther back on the tract. I mentioned that I planned to be fishing for white perch the following week.
“These are white perch and yellow perch. Big yellow perch and lots of them,” he emphasized.
“Tidewater yellow perch?”
“Come down and catch for yourself. You’ll see.”
White perch were first up on a deeper stretch of a Cedar Creek tributary. With a dozen between 8 and 11 inches in the bucket, it was a short drive to a shallow offshoot of another creek (“crick” in local vernacular). It was 12 feet wide and perhaps 2 feet deep, ending in a 30- by 15-foot rectangular pool at the base of an impoundment on the other side of the road above.
The yellows were there in droves, moving up and down the flow, crowding the pool in a frantic search for food. The killie- and grass shrimp-baited rods in the spikes set in the creekside mud were bending so frequently that they were soon abandoned in favor of Mr. Twister and Berkley Gulp Grubs, along with Trout Magnets under mini foam floats. It was pure yellow perch pandemonium.
A 9-inch minimum was the Cru Crew’s imposed rule, and close to 25 were bucketed, including a half-dozen foot-plus and deeply hooked bulging-belly females. Anywhere from 20 to 30 yellows, perhaps more, were released in what was an hour of nonstop action. As soon as the tide shifted and the flow began moving out and the depth receded, the perch made their way down to the deeper reaches of the larger creek below. Just like that, the fish fire was extinguished.
During two decades of working and residing in nearby Ocean City and exploring just about every fresh and brackish venue, I’d never encountered yellow perch in brackish water. This was an angling epiphany that begged the question as to why this fishery has remained under wraps.
Captain Al suggested “White perch are more well known, more popular, get bigger, and can be caught in more places. Not many people bother with yellow perch.”
Referred to as the “Game Preserve” throughout Upper and Middle townships in Cape May County, the sprawling and fragmented 17,403-acre Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area is under the auspices of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. Over the years, it has also been known as the Tuckahoe-Corbin City Wildlife Management Area and the MacNamara Wildlife Management Area.
It’s bordered by the Tuckahoe and Egg Harbor rivers, and the majority of the tract is tucked between the towns of Tuckahoe and Corbin City. A huge latticework of creeks and their tributaries dissect the seemingly infinite expanse of salt marsh. Many of these end at diked impoundments (three each on the Tuckahoe and Corbin City sections). Through the mid-1970s, these salt-influenced impoundments (75 to 284 acres) boasted some of the best largemouth bass and pickerel fishing in the Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland county region, even though they were developed for waterfowl habitat. However, periodic draining and other waterfowl-friendly management priorities caused these fisheries to wane to the point where they are now home to the occasional pickerel, but primarily forage species such as minnows, sunnies and the occasional exotics such as sheepshead minnows. Super Storm Sandy drove the final nails in the coffin of any viable largemouth fishery. (Oddly enough, there are surprising numbers of big blue-claw crabs in residence.) Many of the tributaries and creeks range from 2 to 10 feet at high tide, with the deeper holes in the broader flows found at sharp bends and cut banks. The calorie-rich forage consists primarily of grass shrimp and killies.
The main access is off County Route 631 (Tuckahoe Rd.), and the MacNamara Wildlife Management Area sign will be on your right. It will be on the left if coming in from Route 50.
During March, white and yellow perch ascend these creeks to pack on calories and procreate. The former are far more numerous, attain larger sizes (our personal best whitey measured a robust 16 inches), and travel in sizeable schools, especially in the rivers proper and the wider creeks. The origins of the respective rushes are the Egg Harbor and Tuckahoe rivers, and both species quickly spread, but it appears that the yellows are not as numerous. This is not to imply, however, that there aren’t mobs of them, since return trips during the prime last of the incoming/first of the outgoing tide periods resulted in catches like my first foray with the Cru Crew.
By the last week in March, the female yellows have descended to their home river after spawning, with the smaller males following. The white perch will hang longer, gorging on grass shrimp before returning to the wider creeks and the much deeper Egg Harbor and Tuckahoe rivers. “Yellow Fever” lasts about three weeks; whites can be caught through April.
It will take some scouting to ascertain when the perch arrive, but basically, you fish for them until you start catching them. When only the shorter males are hitting, the run is about done. Weather is a factor during March – torrential rains with the subsequent heavy infusion of fresh water, or a period of below-freezing temperatures, can delay the runs.
While white perch will strike artificials, I’ve had exponentially greater success with live bait during the March madness. Grass shrimp and killies are killers, and in a pinch, bloodworms will work, although these seem to work better as waters warm and the fish move deeper. All can be drifted through likely-looking areas under small bobbers or set in place on a high-low rig anchored by a 1-ounce bank sinker. Hybrid offerings will lead to whacks, the best being a size 0 or 1 silver spinnerbait clip attached to a 1/16-ounce chartreuse jighead festooned with live grass shrimp, a small minnow, or a segment of bloodworm. Slow-roll this through the deeper holes or where a ditch empties into the main flow on a dropping tide.
Yellows are far more aggressive, but they will also greedily glom onto a grass shrimp or minnow-baited hook – this is especially true of the bigger, heftier females. For those who don’t care for the fuss of the live stuff, opt for a Trout Magnet (chartreuse, pink or white on a silver head), Crappie Magnet (purple haze, Percy, or Zoe’s Glow on a white or pink 1/16-ounce jighead), two-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow Grub, or Mr. Twister grub (yellow on a 1/16 oz. white, pink or chartreuse jighead). Miniature minnow-type silver/black and silver/blue Rebel and Rapala plugs will have yellows thumping in the bucket as well. The Yo-Zuri Snap Bean is a dead ringer for the sheepshead minnow, and I’ve caught plenty of yellow perch on the Tennessee Shad pattern.
This is ultralight tackle fishing at its best and really gives either species the opportunity to show its mettle. However, beef up the line to 8-pound-test monofilament when exploring the deeper holes in the bigger waters because the bottom close to the banks is often loaded with snags.
The pools below the impoundment outlet pipes, locally called “gateholes,” are hotbeds of perch activity at high tide and during the first of the outgoing as they herd killies and swarm through gobs of grass shrimp. Along the seven-mile dike road on the Corbin City side off Schoolhouse Lane, there are a dozen or so gateholes worth probing at the last of the incoming and at high tide. Indeed, galloping from one gatehole to another to another, if timed correctly, can quickly fill a bucket with perch.
A freshwater license is not required if fishing below the dike roads; i.e., in the tidal creeks, tributaries and capillaries. However, possession of a NJ Saltwater Registry is required. It is free and can be obtained online at saltwaterregistry.nj.gov. “We check for possession of a saltwater registry, so have one when fishing the tidal areas,” advised Capt. Jason Snellbaker from the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Law Enforcement Bureau.
Unlike Garden State freshwaters, there is no possession limit on white or yellow perch, and there is no minimum length restriction, so let your conscience be your guide. I generally keep those that are at least 8 inches long – just big enough for a pair of short fillets or chunky enough to fry whole when cleaned with the head-to-vent cut, and dorsal and anal fins removed.