The Nile perch (Lates niloticus) is an important food fish in Africa and a prized catch for sport fishermen, but the species is also a massive environmental nightmare. In fact, the Nile perch is massive in more ways than one. It's a giant among fishes, reaching a length of up to 6 feet and a weight of more than 500 pounds. Anything that big eats a lot, and when misguided humans have introduced the Nile perch into new aquatic ecosystems (most notably, Lake Victoria in East Africa), it has caused catastrophic declines among native fish populations. The Nile perch is now common in the Nile, Chad, Senegal, Volta and Congo river basins, and has been ranked by conservationists as one of the world's 100 worst invasive species.
It's Big and It's Hungry
The Nile perch is silver with a blue tinge and has a distinctive set of big black eyes with bright yellow outer rings. It can live in any freshwater body, but it prefers warm tropical waters. The female Nile perch tends to be bigger than the male, but they're both pretty hefty fish. The species is a versatile predator; a Nile perch will eat insects, crustaceans, mollusks and fish. It gobbles down bigger and bigger prey as it grows in size. When it's not eating, the Nile perch passes the time by making more Nile perch -- a lot more. Breeding and spawning peak from March to June, and a female will produce an average of 9 million offspring (most of which don't make it to maturity). The eggs take just 20 hours to hatch. Nile perch reach sexual maturity at about three years of age, and they can live for as long as 16 years.
Catching the Nile Perch
The overpopulation of the invasive Nile perch has wreaked ecological havoc throughout East Africa, but the silver lining is that it's relatively easy to find one to catch. The African Angler Web site's online fishing guide to Lake Nasser, for example, promises that "most who visit the lake for the first time will catch the largest freshwater fish of their life." You can catch a young 10- to 30-pound Nile perch with lightweight tackle, but to get the big guy, you need heavier gear. Remember, this is a really strong fish, so make sure your hooks and split rings are sturdy. The African Angler also recommends tying 80-pound monofilament line directly to the lure, using a special knot.You can catch a Nile perch from shore, but it's a lot easier if you fish from a boat -- you can use heavy boat tackle and play the fish with more agility.
Why You Should Throw It Back
Although Nile perch overpopulation in nonnative habitats has been a giant problem over the past half-century, overfishing and poaching is starting to take a toll. The Nile perch catch at Lake Victoria, for example, has dropped more than 80 percent in the past few years. The big ones are the most prolific breeders, so every one of those that you toss back means more Nile perch for other fishermen to catch.