ERIE -- Fifty feet below the surface, in the cool murky water just off the bottom, the yellow perch schooled near a slight ledge, competing for golden shiners.
Perch are native to the Lake Erie Basin, but the fish amassed 1 1/2 miles off Presque Isle are related to ancestors stocked generations ago by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to replenish a population that was nearly devastated by the excessive commercial fishing of a previous era. Now, members of this particular group pecked lightly at minnows bouncing near the bottom.
Above them, rocking on 4-foot rollers in a steady breeze under cloudy skies, Lake Erie's newest head boat, the O'Danny O, locked onto the school. Onboard, nearly two dozen anglers dropped weighted rigs to the prowling perch.
The day before, clients on the chartered fishing party boat limited out after a few hours of fast and furious fishing. By that standard, this day was slow -- up to a dozen fish in the bucket for each angler on the boat.
"You can see them down there on the fish finder," said Capt. Stan Kalicky, a barefooted and tanned Erie native who grew up with a fly rod in his hand and a steelhead stream in his backyard. "Sometimes they're just not hitting, then they turn on like a light switch."
The O'Danny O, a 1991 44-foot DMR operated by Tiny Tim's Fishing Charters, fills a head boat void created off Erie when another vessel, the Victory, sank in storage during a recent winter. Last summer, the 52-foot Paasch boat Edward John had the perch party market to itself, selling out often, particularly on weekends.
But there are plenty of perch and enough business for two head boats off Presque Isle, said Kalicky, and the competing companies cooperate. He and Edward John captain and owner John Nekoloff tip each other off with GPS coordinates of where the perch are schooling, under the theory that good fishing, and positive word of mouth about Erie head boats, leads to good business for everyone.
During a morning trip last week on the O'Danny O, the captains exchanged at least a couple of cell phone calls -- the Edward John worked the same school of perch in the distance off O'Danny O's port rail.
"Obviously, there are plenty of fish in the sea," said Kalicky. "We've been operational for about four weeks. From Day 1, we've gotten overflow from [the Edward John] because he's so booked. It's a good relationship."
Capt. Nekoloff said cooperation between Erie's only perch head boats makes the work easier.
"It's the best thing to do. It makes good sense," he said. "You never know when one of us will need help. Our goal is to catch fish, and when the fish are scattered, with two boats looking around it's easier. It shows we're not against each other. We're here to keep the customer satisfied."
On both head boats, rates and hours are same: $32 per adult, $27 seniors, $22 for kids; trips are 7 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Valid Pennsylvania fishing license and Lake Erie stamp are required. Rod and reel rental, if requested, is $3. The fee includes beverages, buckets and live bait, which on the O'Danny O consists of live golden shiners 1 to 1 1/2 inches.
Regulations permit three hooks. Most anglers use some kind of line spreader -- a crappie rig or wire hanger. Kalicky prefers a Sabiki rig: swivel snaps at each end of a 2-foot line with three droppers and a 3/4-ounce to 1-ounce sinker at the bottom. Each hook has a colored head and a nymph tail. It's a rig suited for the choppy conditions of the day.
"It gets you to the bottom a little faster, and on these windy days it helps you to avoid a lot of tangles in the lines," Kalicky said.
Most Erie perch anglers use medium to light-action spinning rods strung with 6-pound to 8-pound test monofilament line. Spincast rods are suitable. One O'Danny O fisherman, Bob Gibbs of Erie, a director of the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie fishing club, rigged his spinning rod with braided line.
"It doesn't stretch. When you're fishing that deep it helps you to feel hits and set the hook," he said.
The bait can be rigged through the eyes, in the back below the spine, or in the tail.
"I like to put it through just behind the head, then double back through the back under the spine," said Kalicky. "I've found when the fish hit, it holds the bait on a little longer. With this, when they hit it they're hooked."
Perch can suspend at almost any level where they find food, but on the head boats most fishing is done a few reel cranks off the bottom. In July, the yellow perch generally school at 45 to 50 feet, but as the water warms in mid- to late-August, they'll drop to a cooler 60 to 65 feet. Often, fewer but bigger fish are caught late season, from the last week of August into October.
Even on a slow day, head boat fishing can be fun, and everyone caught fish on Lake Erie's newest perch party boat.
"They're doing a good job," said Jim Mattson of Waterford, another director of S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie. "We just didn't hit them hungry today. They had us over fish all day, but you can't make them bite."
Randy Boyd, an enthusiastic trout fisherman from Shippensburg, Pa., visiting his daughter Heather Boyd at Erie's Gannon University, had never tried a perch boat adventure.
"I never did anything like this," he said. "It's a different type of fishing and I wanted to experience it. This was my first time on the lake. We had fun. We liked it. We caught about 25 fish between us. Actually, she out-fished me."
His daughter laughed.
"I'd done trout and bass fishing in a creek, but never on the lake, so this was quite an experience," she said. "I wasn't sure how it would work out, how crowded it would be. But it was no problem. I liked it."
If you try head boat fishing, bring a cooler to keep your fish on ice, sunscreen, a jacket and motion-sickness pills, just in case.
"The biggest tip I could offer on the fishing is, patience," said Kalicky. "It's like any other kind of fishing. They're down there and we'll get you on them. It's up to the fish to cooperate."