The Search for Giant Perch
November 09, 2017
Yellow perch hold a special place in the hearts of hardcore panfish anglers. Seasoned anglers can recount the precise details surrounding the capture of their biggest yellow perch from decades past as though it was yesterday. Others spin tales of the day they got into a mother lode of jumbos and filled a fish basket too heavy to lift. For those that grew up close to a booming perch fishery, nostalgic stories are recounted of the glory days. Today's anglers continue the quest to catch perch topping the two-pound mark.
Giant perch remain available across wide stretches of North America for those willing to put in the effort. Mostly, though, you can forget about duplicating your grandfather's success on storied perch lakes. Smaller fisheries get wiped out by heavy fishing pressure, and even big waters that continue to produce jumbos are changing quickly, causing perch to alter their feeding habits and locations.
Perch are opportunistic and have adapted to new invasive food sources, such as round gobies on Lake Simcoe and spiny water fleas on Lake of the Woods. Across the Great Lakes, jumbos are showing a resurgence in areas like the north shore of Lake Superior, Upper Green Bay on Lake Michigan, and in pockets throughout eastern Lake Ontario and northern Lake Erie — often driven by a change in their forage. Other historic places for jumbos, like the Finger Lakes in New York, Lake Gogebic in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Mississippi River's northern stretches of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Devils Lake in North Dakota, Lake Poinsett in South Dakota, the Sandhill lakes in Nebraska, and Interlake region of Manitoba, continue to possess the characteristics to produce 2-pound-plus perch. However, apart from Devils Lake, these are largely not numbers fisheries. These are locations where hardcore ice anglers put in their time hunting trophy fish with a realistic chance at success.
Jumbo Perch Prerequisites
Fishery managers have spent a considerable amount of time studying what it takes to consistently grow big perch. From strictly a fishery management perspective, it's a fairly straightforward matter. People such as Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Lake Management in Peoria, Illinois, tell you it's simply a matter of perch having everything they need, at all stages in their life cycle, to sustain maximum growth. With good water quality, high concentrations of food, low competition for that food, and minimal predatory impact, Herman can grow adolescent perch to 14 inches in just three years.
Outside closed managed systems, factors for growing giant perch are no different, as demonstrated by decades of scientific studies. The most important requirement is a constant and abundant food supply throughout the entire life cycle of perch. A study examining growth factors of Midwest perch was performed by South Dakota researchers John Lott, Dr. David Willis, and David Lucchesi. They studied the relationship of food habits to perch growth and population structure in six glacial lakes in South Dakota. They found a direct correlation between diet and growth, and that fast growth rates in high-quality perch populations were attributable to diets consisting primarily of macroinvertebrates such as amphipods, chironomids, and corixids.
Perch in these populations also had a higher body condition index (a measure of plumpness or fatness) and a lower relative abundance. Perch in the lower-quality lakes had reduced body condition, slower growth, and higher relative abundance. Overall, in the high-quality waters with abundant macroinvertebrates, 3-year-old perch averaged 7.5 to 9 inches, while mean length was just 4.2 to 5.6 inches in waters where foods important to fast growth were lacking.
These findings reflect what is evident in many of today's most productive perch fisheries across South Dakota and North Dakota. During the years of expanding fisheries across the Dakotas, new lakes and sloughs were constantly being formed as nutrient-rich land was flooded. This resulted in new populations in systems with abundant supplies of freshwater shrimp and few predators. Perch gorged on a seemingly unending supply of food. The gold rush was on for anglers seeking jumbos.
Andy Fiolka, a hardcore walleye and perch angler from South Dakota, experienced the boom time of perch across the Dakotas. "Ten or 15 years ago, the Dakotas were a trophy perch angler's dream land. Fisheries were expanding at astonishing rates. Bumper year-classes of perch were being produced year after year with newly flooded shorelines each season. Freshwater shrimp were as thick as could be. Giant perch were everywhere, from big-water fisheries like Devils Lake to small 20- to 40-acre sloughs that were pumping out 13- to 15-inch perch. These were fast-growing and short-lived perch with tiny heads and robust bellies, like the kind you still see on Devils Lake."
Fiolka says, as with many fisheries across the country, it was a word-of-mouth bite. Most newly formed bodies of water had no names and by the time they did, the big, easy fish had been taken. He explains, that with minimal moisture over the last two seasons, water levels are dropping quickly and will likely result in tougher conditions for growing giant perch. "Some of the historic fisheries like Bitter, Sweet, and Dry Lake #2 continue to produce 2-pound perch because they maintain an abundant, steady food supply and good annual recruitment," he says. "However, anglers need to be committed to putting in their time, drilling a ton of holes, and being ready to make multiple trips to be successful on these waters. Anglers also need to keep doing their research and recheck smaller lakes that can be cyclical. They may get fished down for several years before slowly reemerging by producing the occasional giant fish."
The Cascade Effect
To catch giant perch, it's often a matter of being at the forefront of the information curve. Fiolka says, "I had the opportunity to take a work transfer to Boise, Idaho, several years ago. I immediately became intrigued by photos of 2- to 2.5-pound perch that would occasionally be caught from a lake in Valley County north of the city. Not being from the area, I joined the local fishing message boards, did research on the Internet, contacted the regional Fish and Game office, and devoted a ton of time to fishing the lake."
That lake is Lake Cascade, situated 75 miles north of Boise. It's currently North America's top producer of 2-pounders and likely has a crop of 3-pound-plus fish working their way up through the system. Tom McGlashen of Tackle Tom's recounts that, during an ice tournament early last February, multiple anglers had weights of over 6 pounds for their top three perch. "These fish weren't even at their maximum annual weight, which occurs just prior to ice-off," McGlashen says. "In January, an angler came in with a 16.75-incher. It could have shattered the world record if caught in late March."
Lake Cascade isn't an example of a system being perfectly in balance to produce trophy fish. It's quite the opposite. Cascade is a story of a historically good perch fishery crashing as a result of being overrun by predatory pikeminnows. Idaho Fish and Game had to undertake a large-scale restoration project to remove thousands of pounds of undesirable species and transplant nearly a million perch from outside waters to restart this fishery. It's now the offspring of the initial perch restocking that are showing up as record-caliber fish.
As fishery manager Dale Allen explains, multiple factors came together to create optimum conditions for these giant perch. "When we first restocked perch into Cascade, it contained an abundance of available food, minimal competition for that food, a low density of predatory fish, and limited angler harvest," he says. "Perch flourished under these conditions." While most new fisheries undergo an initial boom period prior to the lake reaching its carrying capacity, Allen suggests that has yet to occur on Cascade. Instead, perch recruitment has been good in recent years and the size structure remains excellent. This self-sustaining population helps to perpetuate itself by providing trophy fish with a valuable food source in the form of young-of-the-year perch.
"The primary foods for perch at Cascade are macroinvertebrates, snails, and other perch," Allen says. "Starting at about 8 to 9 inches in length, adult perch increasingly turn to cannibalizing young-of-the-year perch." For this reason, Fiolka uses larger ice lures that imitate small perch such as #5 Rapala Rippin' Raps and Salmo Chubby Darters. This eliminates smaller perch and mimics the prey that the trophy perch seek.
Notwithstanding impressive catches at Cascade, the density of perch is relatively low and growth rates and size structure remain strong. Recent netting studies show that 27 percent of the captured perch were greater than 12 inches and 8 percent were longer than 14 inches. However, having seen the boom-and-bust cycles of many perch fisheries, Fiolka cautions that angling pressure has dramatically increased on Cascade during recent winters. In addition, not only are anglers keeping unlimited numbers of perch on a daily basis, some also are taking to unethical practices of leaving piles of smaller perch on the ice.
While it's difficult enough to locate fisheries that produce perch surpassing two pounds, it's inexcusable for anglers to practice poor sportsmanship that could lead to the demise of such fisheries. Give giant perch the respect they deserve and they may grace you with their presence for years to come. No matter where you pursue giant perch, put in the time researching promising fisheries. Focus on those with an adequate supply of macroinvertebrates to sustain perch early, and a fish-dominated forage base for adult perch to achieve their maximum size. For true trophies, forgo fisheries with high-density perch populations for those that produce fewer but potentially giant perch.