Savannah River Yellow Perch

The Savannah River stretch below Clarks Hill is loaded with yellow perch. During the peak of the February run, it’s easy—and fun—to catch a mess of big, tasty perch.

Rob Pavey | February 10, 2016

Egg-laden female yellow perch, like this one landed by the author on a cold winter morning, will bite small live minnows fished close to the bottom in open channels.

Most southern anglers land an occasional yellow perch while chasing crappie or bluegill.

For Tom Lewis, catching the brightly colored fish is an annual mid-winter obsession.

“I go every chance I get, once the bigger ones start biting,” said Tom, who fishes the deep, cold waters of the Savannah River below Clarks Hill Dam.

“The males come up first, starting in late December,” he said. “Then the females show up, mostly in February and March.”

Although varied numbers of perch can be caught many months out of the year, February—the peak of their annual spawning run—is by far the best time to load a cooler with the bigger yellow perch in the Savannah River.

“You might catch 40 to 60 in late December,” he said. “There are more of them, but they are a lot smaller.”

During February, the big, egg-laden females move upstream in great numbers and congregate in the channels below the dam.

“That’s when you’ll find them in the 1- to 2-lb. range,” Tom said. “I’ve caught nice ones through February and as late as mid-March.”

Yellow perch are so plentiful that Georgia has no limit, and South Carolina allows a creel limit of 30 per day. Targeting this species can yield great catches—and fabulous table fare.

The Savannah River, fed by super-cold water from turbine intakes 60 feet below the surface of Clarks Hill Lake (Thurmond Reservoir), offers a near-perfect habitat for perch, which have become both prolific and large.

Just two years ago, on Feb. 27, 2013, Tom landed a 2-lb., 9-oz. Savannah River perch that is Georgia’s reigning state champ.

Are there bigger ones out there waiting to be caught?

“I sure think so,” Tom said. “I had one hooked last year that was probably 3 pounds, and it got away.”

Targeting yellow perch takes patience and fishing tactics that differ from those used with other species.

Tom prefers to fish live minnows held close to the bottom with a slip sinker and 2-foot leader.

“You get the smallest minnows you can find and use very light line,” he said. “Six-pound test is good.”

A No. 6 gold hook completes the rig.

Yellow perch angler Tom Lewis lifts a fish from the Savannah River downstream from the dam at Clarks Hill Lake. Male perch are much smaller than the egg-laden females.

Most fish are caught on deep-water flats close to submerged weed beds, and the best action often coincides with sudden changes in the river’s flow. For several miles below Thurmond Dam, the bigger fish often appear at midday, after power generation is halted.

This year’s floods, which kept the Savannah River below the dam at flood stages for several weeks during January, might have inhibited perch fishing opportunities, but that just makes it more enjoyable once favorable conditions return.

“I do most of my fishing about a mile downstream from the dam, but there are plenty of good places closer to the dam and farther downstream,” Tom said.

Relatively few southern anglers target yellow perch, despite their distinction as one of the best-tasting freshwater species. They are much more popular in northern regions, where Tom—a Michigan native—fished for them as a child.

From a scientific standpoint, the yellow perch is a remarkable and versatile species, living in creeks and rivers from Nova Scotia to Georgia and across much of the Midwest and West. Sometimes, they are mistaken for their famous cousins—the walleye and sauger. Their life span can reach 21 years.

Even their spawning ritual is unusual.

According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ informational website, a single female yellow perch can produce from 3,000 to 150,000 eggs, depending on its size. The females have a single ovary—unique among North American fishes—that produces a continuous, gelatin-like strand of eggs. Spawning is a communal affair, with up to 20 males pursuing a single female.

Depending upon where you’re casting from, they might also have an alias, going by names such as lake perch, jack perch, American perch, coon-tailed perch, ringed perch or striped perch.

In nearby Augusta, which borders the Savannah River, there is a folklore-steeped tradition to refer to them as “Eisenhowers,” or Eisenhower Perch, based on a tale that our nation’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, held them in great esteem, both as table fare and as a favorite species to catch.

Tom enjoys cooking yellow perch as much as catching them. Larger fish can be filleted, rolled in any proven combination of seasonings, flour, milk and egg, and pan fried. Smaller fish can be fried with skin and fins, much like bluegill and crappie.

Georgia has no limits on yellow perch, but South Carolina regulations have a daily limit of 30 per person. Anglers must be mindful that the Savannah River borders both states, but due to a reciprocal fishing license agreement, the river can be fished with a license from either state.

The best ramp to use for perch fishing would be the Below Dam, South Carolina ramp at the base of the dam, since perch move upstream and end up closer to the dam. There is also a Corps of Engineers public ramp of U.S. 221 below the dam on the Georgia side. Farther downstream, there is a U.S. Forest Service ramp off Hopewell Church Road in Sumter National Forest on the South Carolina side; and a Georgia ramp at Betty’s Branch—a tributary of the Savannah—in Riverside Park off Hardy-McManus Road in Columbia County.

Tom’s Tips For Savannah River Yellow Perch

Perch run dates: late December to early March.

Best time: late morning, when power generation ceases.

Pay attention: perch strike gently and can be missed.

Bait: fish the smallest minnows you can find.

Tackle: use 6-lb. test or lighter line to allow bait to move.

Rig: a 2-foot leader below a 1/2-oz. sliding sinker.

Setting the hook: a No. 6 gold crappie hook works best.

Best spots: deep-water flats near weed beds.

Anchors: take two in case current is strong.

Luxury item: net the big ones—they can drop off.

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