Tony Conrad nosed his skiff through sheets of ice and into the docile shallows of the Upper Chesapeake Bay just north of Baltimore. He and his two mates, Kevin "Catfish" O'Neil and Sean "Sammy" Bowie, picked up a fyke net and opened the chute.
Out tumbled a whole lot of fish that were of little value — small mud shad, larger crappie and some carp. But mixed in the net was a small fish with yellow and black stripes and a spiny dorsal fin.
Today, this is the money fish — a yellow perch that will fetch about $2.50 a pound at Conrad's Crab and Seafood Market in eastern Towson.
That's not a lot, compared with the prices for striped bass. But this is February, and there's not much else to sustain Conrad and his crew this time of year. Plus, the $2.50 he can get for a yellow perch locally this year is more than four times what the fish fetched just two years ago.
"This is very good eating," said Conrad, who recommends frying the perch and its roe with panko, corn flake crumbs and a signature spice mix available at his shop. "We market ourselves as locally owned, locally caught. Why buy it from someone else when you can come out here and catch it yourself?"
Yellow perch gravitate toward the shallows of freshwater tributaries to spawn. Known as the "first fish" or the "people's fish," they are among the first that a young angler can hook. Parents often take children to piers in rivers where the fish are known to spawn. Because recreational anglers can keep them, they've made great meals for home cooks.
But one place where the fish never really found a home was on local restaurant menus. Because the yellow perch season is so short — it starts in late January and runs until March 10 — only a few dozen commercial watermen bothered fishing for it. Those that did fish for them sent the perch, frozen, to Cleveland — Midwesterners have a taste for it, and restrictions in the Great Lakes have made them less plentiful.
About a year ago, Steve Vilnit sought to change that. Vilnit, a seafood marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was hired in 2010 to help market all of Maryland's various fisheries. In his first two years, he took on blue crabs, increasing the number of restaurants that served local meat in Maryland by more than 30 percent. He then turned his attention to invasive species like blue catfish and northern snakehead — large predators that disrupt river ecosystems but are a joy to catch because of the challenge and the fact that they can be fished without limits.
Last year, he turned his focus to local perch. In 2011, Vilnit said, the fish wasn't on any menus in Maryland and was only available in stores like Conrad's. He began taking chefs out on the water, often on Conrad's boat, called the Crab Dog. Once the chefs saw the beautiful fish and how sustainably it was caught, Vilnit said, they were eager to plate it. By the end of the 2011 fishing season, yellow perch had landed on about 30 menus in the region — many of them high-end establishments that pride themselves on sustainable local cuisine.
The demand drove the price up from 50–80 cents last year to the $2.50 the fish command today.
"The chefs like the fish — they just wish they were bigger," Vilnit said.
But to Chef Chad Wells of Rockfish in Annapolis, the small yellow perch has its advantages. Wells made a name for himself at his previous restaurant, Baltimore's Alewife, with inventive preparations of snakehead and blue catfish. As a fisherman himself, he tries to source all of the restaurant's food locally, and puts restaurant specials — including the perch — on his Facebook page and Twitter feeds.
"It's a good size to be able to say, 'here's a whole fish that you can eat,'" said Wells, who favors an Asian preparation with a hoisin glaze and watercress salad that retails for around $20. "I don't think there's a whole lot of awareness of when the season is, but I think [the dish] is the sort of thing that sells itself."
Yellow perch have all but disappeared from many of the tributaries they once called home — victims of a loss of crucial grass habitat to over-sedimentation and siltation. For a time, they were overfished, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior scientist Bill Goldsborough. But that's not the case anymore, he said, with the Department of Natural Resources "doing a good job of managing fish stocks in the Bay in a sustainable way."
Goldsborough said there's no reason fishermen shouldn't get the best price possible, and there's no problem with Vilnit trying to stoke demand.
Tony Friedrich of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland agrees. The group, which supports recreational fishermen, has worked hard to restore yellow perch habitat and has helped the DNR with its annual surveys to count the perch's egg sacks and determine where they are spawning.
A few years ago, the CCA helped to lead the effort to change the law so that commercial fishermen had to tag and record their yellow perch catch.
"I fault no one for trying to make a living off the water. No one. But you have to follow the rules," Friedrich said. "I would much prefer seeing yellow perch at a grocery store in Maryland than having it go to the Midwest, because at least it goes to benefit the economy here."
Later in February, Conrad said, his net will look like a sausage casing filled with yellow perch. And the money he makes will help him pay his crew and sustain them until he begins crabbing.
Vilnit said he's gotten the price about as high as it will go for yellow perch, so he's moving on to the spiny dogfish. Already, adventurous chefs like Wells are trying them. Also known as the cape shark, the spiny dogfish inhabits the Lower Chesapeake south of the Potomac from late fall to early spring. An attractive fish it is not, but then again, neither is the toothy snakehead.
"They're a sustainable fish, and these guys are getting like 14 and 17 cents per pound for them," Vilnit said. "I think we can do better."