Yellow Perch: The Other Local Food
by Mary Thill
You can catch yellow perch year-round in Lake Champlain. But to catch a perch fish fry in a restaurant, winter is the time to go.
Perch-fry specials are beginning to appear on eastern Adirondack menus, especially near Plattsburgh and Crown Point. By Lent you can count on it. The fish come from Lake Champlain’s surprisingly active commercial fishery, but they aren’t caught with nets as they are in oceans and the Great Lakes. The industry consists of lots of regular guys with hooks and lines.
Recreational anglers on Lake Champlain are allowed to catch and sell unlimited perch, according to New York State fishing regulations. That’s true all year, but ice cover makes the lake accessible to people who don’t have boats, so more locals fish for perch in winter, and this winter the ice is good.
“I usually have two people [on staff] filleting all day in winter,” says Norm St. Pierre, owner of Norm’s Bait and Tackle, near the Crown Point bridge. “We sell 50 to 100 pounds of fillets a day just out of my store, not counting the restaurants.”
St. Pierre retails medium-size fresh skinless perch fillets for $8.50 per pound, jumbos for $10. Price fluctuates with the market. St. Pierre declined to say how much fish he buys, but at the north end of the lake, at Lake Champlain Fish Company in Rouses Point, owner Jim Jeffries says, “It varies. Anywhere from 500 to 600 to a couple thousand pounds a week.”
Few records of Champlain fish sales exist, though wildlife agencies estimated that between 200,000 and 745,000 pounds of fish were sold in 1991—not just yellow perch, but sunfish, rock bass and other unregulated panfish. Today even invasive white perch fetch a price.
“Locally there’s not too much market for white perch,” Jeffries says. He ships most panfish to Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania, or to Canada. White perch go mostly to big fish markets in major cities such as Boston and New York, where they are popular with Chinese buyers, he says.
Jeffries is currently paying fishermen $1.30 per pound for whole yellow perch that are eight inches or longer, less for other fish. He has been in the business since 1985, but he no longer fillets fish on site, selling whole fish to a middleman who transports them to a processor in the Midwest. Jeffries then buys back fillets and sells them to local restaurants. Walk-ins can also buy a two-pound bag of frozen perch at his Rouses Point shop for $13. (Note: northern Lake Champlain fillets are generally skin-on, southern are skin-off; Jeffries says on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain the mode is hog-dressed: peeled whole fish on the bone.)
Meat fishing has been a source of side income for anglers along Lake Champlain for a long time. If you do the math, it’s clear that the people braving the cold are not making a living off their catch. But fishermen still talk about a time decades ago when perch prices were higher and some guys would go on unemployment in the winter and collect a second check by fishing. (Winter smelt fishing was once big business in Port Henry, but that’s another story.)
“Where I grew up in Plattsburgh on Bailey Avenue, the outskirts of the French Quarter, there was a store there, Happy Lamare’s fish market,” recalls Mick Maynard, a charter-fishing guide. Lamare sold perch. “And a lot of the old-timers that lived in the French quarter were French Canadian and they ice-fished, and their families ate fish a couple times a week. It was really a staple. That’s going back almost 50 years.”
Maynard now spends winters in Florida, but he sold perch in the past. “It’s a real tough paycheck. I can tell you,” he says. “A 5-gallon pail of perch is worth about $30, give or take . . . if they’re big perch.”
Buffalo, where I grew up, has crazy love for fish fry. During Lent you can find it almost anywhere: Mighty Taco, Just Pizza, even the halal restaurant at the corner of my mom’s street. But fish fry there is mostly haddock nowadays. Even though Buffalo sits at the edge of Lake Erie, by a teeming perch population, it has become rare to find perch dinner. When you do, the fish on the plate was caught on the north shore, in Ontario, where commercial gill-net fishing is still legal, then frozen and shipped via Detroit.
I’d love to see a good Lake Champlain yellow-perch joint in the upland Adirondacks. I live at the top of the watershed, in Saranac Lake, an hour’s drive from Champlain, and no restaurant here serves perch. Farmers drive from farther away to sell produce and lamb at the booming Saranac Lake farmer’s market. But Lake Champlain panfish are ignored by the local-foods movement. Maybe that’s because perch is old school, usually deep fried and served in taverns. Or maybe it’s viewed with suspicion because it’s wild-caught and meat-fishing is scorned by catch-and-release anglers. Or maybe it’s just hard to comprehend that a harvest that would hammer fish populations in a small Adirondack lake is by all evidence sustainable in a large lake such as Champlain.
More likely, local foodies are wary of contaminants such as PCBs, but in that regard Lake Champlain and its fish are cleaner than they’ve been in decades. There’s also a lot less mercury in Lake Champlain fish than in the Saranacs, and concentrations of the heavy metal are declining there while they continue to increase in some upland lakes. (Click here to read about the safety of eating fish from Lake Champlain.)
There simply is no better frying fish than yellow perch, but it can be messed up. Last week I had rubbery, overfried perch at a Plattsburgh restaurant better known for hot dogs, and the place should probably stay that way. Following are the names of other restaurants fishermen have recommended:
Near Crown Point
The Bridge Restaurant, Chimney Point, Vermont
DeBro’s On the Way Café, Crown Point
The Hot Biscuit, Ticonderoga
George’s, Port Henry
The Dry Dock, Plattsburgh
Peabody’s, Plattsburgh (during Lent)
Correction: The original version of this article referred incorrectly to the name of a restaurant: it is DeBro’s On the Way Cafe, in Crown Point, not Halfway Cafe.