Alchemy was, most famously, all about turning lead to gold. During the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, it was hoped that some combination of science and magic could get the job done, but alas, lead remains the stuff of cheap depth finders—the kind perch fishermen clip to their Carharts.
We can’t turn lead to gold, but we can help you turn 10-inch perch into jumbos. The ones I call “jumbies” (perch 14 inches and up) live different lifestyles than their smaller, younger brethren. Jumbies form cliques. They can leave cover when predators are on the prowl. They move farther out on the flats when insect activity goes bonkers on the soft basin substrates after mid winter. Much of the year they have a different diet than smaller perch. They travel in smaller packs, eat at different restaurants, march to a different drummer.
Life choices of the jumbo are the specialty of alchemist Jon Thelen, product promotions manager for Lindy Fishing Tackle. He turns average perch lakes into gold mines. “On most lakes, I can find the bigger units,” he says. “On lakes with real promise, I find 14-inchers pretty consistently.
“On lakes like Minnesota’s Mille Lacs, most perch anglers look to the vast mudflats away from structure to hold the biggest perch,” he says. “That may be true for numbers, because little perch want to stay away from structure when feeding for fear of becoming dinner themselves. At times, bigger perch use structure to ambush the larger meals they need to sustain their jumbo bulk. They need minnows in their diet. But jumbos usually don’t prowl the tops of structure with walleyes during low-light periods because they spent the first part of their lives running for their lives up top during those prime walleyes times.”
Jumbos usually feed at the base of a structure. “Look at spots where you expect to catch walleyes once the sun hits the tree tops,” he says. “Concentrate around the base of those structures from mid morning to early evening, near the transitions that separate bottom types.”
The more isolated these structures are, the better they can be. But, as winter progresses, the eggs of various insects begin to hatch into aquatic forms, drawing jumbos out onto basin flats. The same tenets apply: If you’re catching smaller perch, keep moving. Jumbos often move farther afield than smaller perch. Look for isolated rockpiles, reefs, and hard-bottom humps.
“Jumbos like structure surrounded by soft bottom,” he says. “Those kinds of areas offer two primary sources of food. Within a short distance, they can find invertebrates and the meatier minnows they need to maintain their figure.”
At 8 to 9 inches a perch changes feeding preference from primarily invertebrates and insect larvae to a combination of invertebrates and small minnows, according to Thelen. “The smallest minnows, like young spottail shiners, become increasingly important in growing perch to 12 inches,” he says. “Lots of minnows begin to appear in the stomach contents of 8-inch perch.
“Six-inch fish avoid areas where walleyes and other larger predatory fish feed, but jumbos spend more time near those fish,” he says. “We often set up in an area to fish for walleyes and catch jumbos during periods when the walleye bite’s slow. Perch can’t see well in the dark, so they don’t feed in unison with walleyes even though they’re after the same things—as I’ve said, typically minnows.”
Jumbos punch in during the middle of what blue-collar guys call first shift and check out during the middle of second shift. “The jumbos often come in behind a school of walleyes in mid morning, then they beat walleyes to the cafeteria in the afternoon by showing up earlier. Since jumbos feed at the base of structures versus the tops, they need a little more light penetration. The best times for jumbos tend to be between 9 am and 3 pm throughout much of winter.”
Big perch often are more curious and less skittish than smaller ones. Thelen: “Jumbos often respond readily to rattling baits like the Lindy Darter and the Lindy Rattln’ Flyer Spoon. They also like things they haven’t seen before, like the Lindy Slick Jig, especially when you pound it on the bottom. That really draws fish in. For the Rattln’ Flyer Spoon and Slick Jig I tip with a small minnow or a minnow head, selecting for larger perch by using a large presentation package.”
Thelen contends that if you want jumbos, stick with minnows most of the time. If perch come in and look but won’t bite, deadstick a minnow on a bare hook or on small jighead. At times it helps to pinch away a tiny section of the minnow’s tail before dropping it down so the minnow can’t get away so easily. Deadsticking is deadly for fish that won’t respond to flashy spoons, noisy lures, and glow jigs.
One good way to find perch is to fish with a group of anglers equipped to move. Cover ice by leap frogging, spending 5 to 10 minutes at holes and moving on. Thelen typically cuts holes farther apart than some anglers might in their search for fish—at least 50 to 75 feet apart. He uses a Humminbird Ice 55 sonar unit to see what’s happening below. “I don’t just look for fish,” he says. “I fish each hole for about 5 minutes. It doesn’t take long to call perch in with a rattling lure. That’s why I stretch the hole pattern. We cover more water by calling fish in instead of trying to get right over them. At times when you’re on a school you need to tighten up the pattern to stay on fish.
“I use a Humminbird 385 CI with a LakeMaster chip to choose drilling locations. There’s a sequence: I drill along the edge of the base of structure for 50 to 100 yards. At both ends of that line I drill out towards deep water about 100 yards, creating a ‘C’ with squared ends. If they aren’t feeding on the edge, we work out onto the flat.”
He has 3 rods rigged and ready: One has an aggressive lure like the 11⁄3-inch Lindy Darter to pick off the most active fish and call in curious ones. A second holds a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Rattln’ Flyer Spoon. The last rod is rigged with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Slick Jig.
“The Slick Jig is for perch away from structure,” he says. “Those fish usually are feeding on larva by rooting them out of the bottom. The Slick Jig’s weight-forward design makes it perfect for pounding or crawling along bottom. If I’m close to structure, I add a whole minnow. As I move further away from the structure I might switch to a waxworm or maggots. You often see a preference develop during yearly periods and also during a day.”
Time to hit the water. Time to turn pesky bait peckers into heavy piles of sassy gold.
The closest thing to universal colors, according to Jon Thelen, are natural forage patterns, touched up with bright, reflective colors. “Lindy Darters, Frosty Spoons, Rattlin’ Flyers, and Slick Jigs in Golden Shiner, Shiner, Perch, and Rainbow attract from a distance in any color water,” he says. “They work everywhere I’ve fished for perch through the ice. Experiment to find the right color for the conditions at hand.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an exceptional multispecies angler and writer who has been working with the In-Fisherman staff for more than two decades.