The Great Perch Tragedy

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Ellie and her 17-inch yellow perch.

I suppose there are lots of times in life when you don’t need to know exact numbers. The length of my driveway in inches, the number of cookies I had for dessert and the amount I spent on THE PANHANDLER  (a double-edged, single-action, fish-filleting piece of genius that I have never used) all come to mind.

But let me tell you something: when it comes to perch, exact numbers are very important. I learned this the hard way in what will forever be known as The Great Perch Tragedy.

It all started innocently enough. My daughter Ellie and I were fishing a few years ago on one of our favorite lakes and we were down to the last few casts. We were due home so I could clean up before taking my wife to dinner for our fourteenth wedding anniversary (anniversaries being one of those times when exact numbers, and punctuality, are critical). Ellie pitched her worm next to a submerged boulder and almost instantly yelled: “Dad, I got a nice one here.”

When she got it on board, I saw she was right. “That is a huge Pumpkinseed. I bet it qualifies for the state’s trophy fish program. We have to photograph and measure it.”

I explained to Ellie that Connecticut issues a certificate and pin if you catch a fish of sufficient size. There are two ways to qualify: by weight and by length. To qualify by weight, you must have the fish weighed on a certified scale. This usually requires killing the fish in order to transport it to an approved scale. Or, you can release the fish if you take pictures of the angler holding it and clearly showing its length. We keep a yardstick on the boat for this exact purpose.

Killing the fish wasn’t an option for me or Ellie, so we carefully took the required pictures. We submitted the forms to the state, and six weeks later Ellie received her pin. Hers was the largest Pumpkinseed caught that year.

That fish triggered something. Suddenly, Ellie couldn’t get enough of fishing. Clearly, the prospect of earning trophy pins had replaced the desire to occasionally humor me. I say “clearly,” because she told me so.

“Dad”, she said, “we have to get back out on the lake and do some more fishing.”

“Really, you enjoy fishing with me that much?” My heart, ignoring signals from my brain, was swelling.

“Well … sure. But, don’t you think we can get some more pins? You have always said there are some huge fish in that lake.”

And so, about a week later, we were back at it. I wasn’t optimistic about our chances. The wind was blowing really hard. I knew I could put us on one of the honey holes, but I didn’t think I could keep us there long enough to catch fish.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Ellie made her first cast, and before I could even put bait on my line, she said: “Oh my.”

Those were her only words as she hoisted into the boat the largest yellow perch I have ever seen. I mean, it was a monster.

Twenty full seconds of stunned silenced passed. And then: “Does it qualify?”

“I don’t know. Let’s take some pictures and measure it.”

It was no easy task getting a good shot of her holding a fish whose girth was three times the size of her forearm. Twice, it powered its way out of her grip by flicking its enormous head. Finally, with her arm shaking, she was able to hold it just long enough for me to snap a picture.

We then carefully laid it on the yardstick. Sensing, I’m sure, the magnitude of the circumstances, the fish lay still: 17 and one-half inches.

“Is it big enough?”

“I’m afraid not. It needs to be 21 inches. Sorry, honey.”

“Shouldn’t you take a picture of it on the yardstick just in case?”

“No need. I’m sure. Twenty-one is the minimum.”

We made the drive home in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. And my thoughts were consuming me. What started as nagging doubt was quickly turning to sheer panic. What kind of idiots set these standards? How can a perch exceeding 17 inches not qualify? I had recently looked at the standard for smallmouth bass–please tell me I didn’t confuse the two. Why, oh why didn’t I just open the book I keep on the boat?

Better yet, why didn’t I just take a picture like Ellie suggested?

I waited until the next day to tell her. “I made a mistake. The minimum is only 15 inches. Your fish easily qualified.”

In response, she stared at me with a mixture of shock, anger and pity. I had never seen that expression on her face before, though its common place with her older brother.

And then it passed.

“Well, dad, we’ll just have to go catch him again.”