Great Lakes Perch Boom
April 01, 2014
It's nice to be the bearer of good news, and when it comes to Great Lakes perch, there's plenty to go around. From the north shore of Lake Superior to the southern tip of Lake Michigan and stretching to the eastern bays of Lake Ontario, perch are making a resurgence from historically low levels of the 1990s. In locations where recruitment of young perch remains low, opportunities for trophies continue. Other locations produce fewer jumbos, but make up for it with catches of 100 perch per day.
Lake Michigan: Perch on the southern end of Lake Michigan are some of the largest in the Great Lakes. Time the bite right and learn local tricks and you could go away with limit catches in the 11- to 16-inch range. These fish are robust, with bellies as big as smallmouth bass and the length to match keeper walleyes.
Lake Michigan continues to lack good recruitment of small perch, a problem with this fishery for decades. Even in years with good spawns, few young-of-the-year (age-0) perch survive to their second year or beyond to join the catchable population. Lack of food in the form of zooplankton for age-0 perch appears to be a leading cause of poor recruitment. Much of the blame is directed at the exploding populations of zebra and quagga mussels. These water-filterers compete with age-0 perch for zooplankton.
Despite these concerns, Captain Ralph Steiger of Hammond, Indiana, had a banner year for jumbos in 2012. He says, "Spring was great. With warmer-than-usual air and water temperatures early in the season, fishing was on fire in March. The effects of the warm spring caught up to us in July and August. With 80°F-plus water temperatures along the shoreline, the bigger perch failed to move shallow last summer. But we had fantastic fall fishing through mid-December, so the fish are out there and we're anticipating a great spring season."
Lake Superior: The largest of the Great Lakes remains largely disregarded as a perch fishery. Vast and imposing, Superior conjures up thoughts of 20-foot waves, shipwrecks 100 fathoms beneath the surface, and lake trout the size of compact cars. However, its protected bays provide the perfect habitat for a booming perch population. In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer says, "The isolated back bays and coves along the North Shore offer some of the finest trophy perch fishing on the continent. The coves and bays of Algoma Country, Ontario, function like lakes within the lake, and once you locate perch, they're easy to catch. Fish in the 12- to 14-inch range are common, and numbers are good."
On Superior's southwest shore surrounding Ashland and Bayfield, Wisconsin, there's a strong population of perch in the 4- to 6-inch range and plenty of keeper fish from 8 to 12 inches, reported Captain Jim Hudson, who died tragically this past January. These strong year-classes ensure a quality fishery for the next several years. "We have a lot of perch in the bay," he said. "While the smaller fish are food for the lake's predators, the big ones are out there in numbers and run up to 15 inches."
Lake Erie: There's no equal among its Laurentian peers when it comes to producing large numbers of perch. Jumbos in the 13- to 15-inch range are less prevalent here, however. These prolific waters offer 100-perch days with regularity. A Seafood Watch report notes that 85 percent of the Great Lakes' commercially caught perch come from Lake Erie (8 to 10 million pounds annually), with about 8 percent from Lake Ontario, 6 percent from Lake Huron, and 1 percent from Lake Michigan's Green Bay.
With strong year-classes in 2005, 2006, and 2008, Erie shows no sign of slowing. Above-average recruitment in recent years is producing large catches of fish averaging 8 to 10 inches. The area around Huron and the Bass Islands in Ohio remain solid producers, while Pelee Island, Ontario, is consistently good throughout much of the season. The entire eastern portion of Lake Erie also supports a strong perch population, and Captain Frank DiMarcantonio reports easy limits in spring and fall when the wind cooperates.
Lake Ontario: The best perch catches typically occur in the Bay of Quinte and the eastern portion of the lake. During the 1990s and early 2000s, perch took a hit due to large colonies of cormorants established in the Outlet Basin area of Lake Ontario. According to a study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, cormorants may have consumed nearly half of the age-0 perch in portions of the lake, along with significant numbers of age-2 and age-3 perch.
A project by the New York State Department of Environmental Conversation and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, to oil cormorant eggs and destroy nests, has lessened cormorant predation on age-0 perch, allowing establishment of a strong 2005 year-class. Perch average 8 to 11 inches throughout this area, and once they're located, big catches are common.
Lake Huron: Saginaw Bay and the northern shoreline area of Lake Huron remain strongholds of perch fishing. The curtailing of destructive cormorant populations around the Charity Islands, Michigan, and Cheneaux Islands, Ontario, along with several strong year-classes between 2003 to 2010, have helped reestablish this historically strong fishery.
Captain Mike Veine runs charters from Au Gres, Michigan, and says that Saginaw Bay is doubly blessed. "Walleye fishing was off the charts again last year, and I've never seen so many perch in the Bay. We averaged more than 20 perch each outing as a bycatch during walleye trips. Perch are averaging 7 to 10 inches, and even with predation by the booming walleye stock, perch are everywhere. Anglers should expect outstanding fishing in 2013."
Great Lakes Tactics
Using spreader-rigs with livebait is a universal tactic on the Great Lakes. As water temperatures climb into the 40s each spring, prespawn perch gather in schools of similar-sized fish. On Lake Michigan, Steiger locates clay bottom areas in 45 to 50 feet of water and drifts with double-fly rigs. Unlike traditional wire-arm crappie spreader rigs that have plain hooks on 6- to 10-inch snells, perch fly-rigs have marabou, flashabou, or tinsel tied to #4 Aberdeen hooks for added color and flash. Flies are attached to the mainline with loop knots about 6 and 18 inches above a 1/2- to 3-ounce dropper weight.
Attaching flies on a short loop knot gives them more action while reducing tangles. Steiger's clients catch more jumbos by using this rig over a standard crappie spreader rig. "I may leave one or two hooks unbaited during the drift," he says. "If a perch eats a fly that's baited, the unbaited fly swings frantically, attracting more perch. Soon you have a double."
As the water warms in summer, Great Lakes perch move shallower to feed. With abundant food sources available to perch, anglers have multiple presentation and location options. Where the main-lake basin is extremely deep, disregard the basin and concentrate on nearshore fish. Weedbeds within harbors, riprap breakwalls, and the outside edge of primary weedlines are key locations for targeting summer perch.
Weedbeds can be fished with a slipfloat or jigging presentation. Concentrate on harbors and bays with soft-bottom areas conducive to growing large irregular weedbeds. As quagga mussels continue to make for clearer water, prime weedbeds can be found in depths from 6 to 15 feet. These weeds support a diverse menu of aquatic insect larvae, snails, and baitfish. The same weeds also provide perch with cover from a growing population of predators like pike, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass, along with cormorants.
On Lake Superior, Hudson found perch shallow most of the year around weedcover in 15 feet of water of less. "Even into August and September, we find fish in bays, using the deepest, green weeds available. Shoreline cover, like pilings and old docks, in the marinas around Ashland and Washburn also concentrate perch. In the ultra-clear waters of Superior, we often sight-fish perch around cover. I pitch jigs until I make contact with active fish. Once they're located, I anchor and fish large minnows — sometimes as big as a 5-inch sucker minnow — to tempt the biggest perch in the pack. People would be surprised how large a bait jumbo perch eat."
As Lake Huron's waters cool in late summer, Veine sees a transition of perch from their summer depths of 25 to 40 feet of water to nearshore depths of less than 15 feet, and he switches to slipfloats. "In shallow water, a small Custom Jigs and Spins Ratso tipped with a minnow under a slipfloat is deadly," he says. "One of the keys to detecting bites is balancing your float with enough lead to make it nearly neutrally buoyant. The lightest bite from a perch should cause the float to rise or sink, depending on whether the perch takes the bait upward or downward.
"When the perch bite heats up on Saginaw Bay, minnow shortages can occur. Savvy anglers switch to Berkley Gulp! or use small bits of store-bought shrimp to fool perch that are feeding by both sight and smell."
Time of day and light penetration affect location of perch in weedbeds. During low-light periods, perch cruise from one weedpatch to the next and widely patrol outside the edge of weedbeds. Position slipfloats along the inside edge of thick weedclumps and suspend baits above the vegetation to coax perch up from several feet off bottom. As the sun gets higher, bait placement must be more precise. Focus on pockets in the interior of weedbeds. Jigs work best at midday, tipped with a piece of soft-shell crawfish or a 2-inch Gulp! Minnow. Slowly drag and hop jigs inches off bottom.
In urban settings, thoroughly fish breakwalls and riprap shorelines. They're full of crevices that attract and retain bait — gobies, alewives, lake shiners, and crayfish. Perch remain in these areas for most of the summer and fall. Use dark jigs that resemble gobies, and work them with a slow drag-and-hop retrieve. Concentrate on turns and breaks in structure, and where the base of the breakwall intersects the lake bottom.
Large sections of this structure can be fished from a boat, drifting and correcting direction with the trolling motor. Jigging spoons, like Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and Blue Fox's Rattlin' Flash Jig-n Spoon, tipped with a minnow head or Gulp! Minnow, should be worked with an aggressive snap-fall retrieve. Small bladebaits, like the Johnson Thinfisher and Wolf's Big Dude, can be equally effective near breakwalls.
During late summer and fall, the outside edges of long expansive weedflats become key holding areas, after strong winds reduce water clarity or cold fronts drop water temperatures throughout bays or inner harbor areas. Try flatline trolling with spinner rigs to quickly locate perch. This technique covers more water and targets aggressive fish, so it excels when they're scattered. The spinner rig used by Steiger on Lake Michigan is similar to a weight-forward spinner used for walleyes on Lake Erie. Retailers like Mik-Lurch (miklurchtackle.com) in Hammond, Indiana, make custom versions of this rig.
The rig is tipped with a half nightcrawler or a piece of soft-shell crayfish and longlined behind the boat. Add just enough weight for the rig to occasionally tick the top of the deep weededge. Troll at about 1 mph with a kicker or trolling motor. Hold the rod in your hand to detect the slightest tap from fish. Upon feeling a bite, drop the rod tip back toward the fish, giving it a few extra seconds to take the bait prior to setting the hook. Switch from livebait to Gulp! 3-inch Minnow Grubs once fish are located or when gobies and small perch become a nuisance. Artificial softbaits stay on the hook better than livebait and retain their action even at slow trolling speeds.
Winter options for Great Lakes perch are limited, and Lake Superior offers the best chances of fishable ice for up to several months. Hudson reported that winter perch on Chequamegon Bay are nomadic and cruise the huge flats on the eastern portion of the bay. "Like any type of fish relating to flats, subtle bottom changes are key to being successful," he said. "Look for small depressions, subtle 1- to 2-foot depth changes, downed weeds, and any bottom transitions.
"Pressure ridges also are overlooked," he said. "More sunlight penetrates through these openings in the ice and causes bottom wigglers to become active. Perch pick up on this activity and work along these cracks to find food.
"To find prime ice-fishing areas on big water, pre-ice homework in the boat is best. Otherwise, drilling holes over larger areas and searching becomes the next best plan. Use detailed map cards like a Navionics LakeMaster to locate small transitions, and then work the area with a partner, drilling and leap-frogging until fish are located.
"When jumbos are found, tighten the noose and fish them hard," Hudson recommended. "They will probably keep moving, so have your auger ready. To hold perch in an area, try using a perch as a decoy, where it's legal. Leave a fish hooked up to keep the school nearby. Once we find them, we bait tip-ups or Automatic Fishermans with larger minnows. Large perch have a strong preference for bigger baits."
If you enjoy chasing perch, Great Lakes waters provide many opportunities as perch populations remain strong. Whether you're seeking numbers of keeper fish or a wall-hanger, there's a time and place on the Great Lakes to keep you seeing gold.