Tiny perch lures require 2-pound line in order to work well. Larger lures work well coupled with 4-pound line. In waters where walleyes and perch often are caught on the same outing, anglers usually use 6-pound line when perch remain the main focus.
Sometimes perch are suicidal, biting almost anything that goes down an ice hole. Even big spoons that aren’t sweetened with a bit of fish or grub. I’ve seen it happen in shallow water and deep water, though bites like that usually don’t last long in the shallows. A day or two, maybe. Sometimes only half an hour. Depends how many perch boys are there to beat the school senseless.
The suicide scene also transpires during every portion of the ice season, although most of the crazy shallow biting is at first-ice and then any semblance of suicidal action typically slides deeper as the season progresses. Perch still are shallow, deep, or somewhere in between, but the shallower fish, in particular, just get tough. Finally, most of the deeper fish do too.
Just keep moving—One option is to just keep moving, searching for an untouched school. If you’re the first in line presenting baits to a long line of perch, even during midseason, you’re bound to get bit good, so long as what you’re presenting is reasonably in the ballpark. Even then, though, soon enough the easy bite usually goes bad.
When I’m searching for fish, especially early on, I often do it with a bigger bait, a spoon like a 1/4-ounce Acme Kastmaster or Bad Dog Pin Minnow. Or I use a #3 or #5 Jigging Rapala. This past season I also used the new Nils Master Baby Jigger Shad. On bigger lakes like Minnesota’s Mille Lacs (130,000 acres), bigger baits are the rule. On smaller lakes, scale down 1/8 ounce or more, even when you’re searching.
Lots of other bait options out there, of course. In-Fisherman Staff Writer Jeff Simpson, who hails from great perch country in eastern South Dakota, reports that this past season, the hot spoons there were 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Acme Little Cleos or Acme Sidewinders or Thunderbolts. Hot color was fire-tiger on gold, which is a great color almost anywhere perch swim. So many great baits (particularly spoons) and so little time.
Bigger baits, nontraditional tactics—When perch get fussy, usually it’s necessary to scale down bait size. But not always. Sometimes bigger bait used in nontraditional ways can tempt fussy fish.
Traditional jigging tactics require that a lure be fished about 3 to 12 inches above the bottom once the bait’s been jigged and comes to rest. The bottom zone can be worked in several ways. Perch, though, spend a lot more time taking food off the bottom than most anglers realize.
“Bottom skipping” begins with your rod tip positioned so your lure (say a #3 Jigging Rapala tipped with a minnow head) is 3 inches above the bottom. Do a bottom snap or skip instead of a lift-fall, by dropping the lure to the bottom and immediately snapping it back to its original position. Hold, and then repeat. On a semisoft bottom, a bottom snap puffs a cloud of silt when the lure skips bottom. The drop-lift maneuver attracts fish; the hold gives them a chance to bite.
“Bottom upping” begins with your lure (say a 1/4-ounce spoon tipped with maggots) on the bottom, your line tight to the lure, and your rod tip about 3 inches above the water at the hole. Lift sharply a foot or so, immediately return your rod tip to its original position (the spoon falls back to the bottom), and then immediately lift your rod tip 3 more inches (to 6 inches above the hole) and hold. The spoon is 3 inches above the bottom. Before lifting again, drop the spoon back to the bottom and bounce it there a time or two. Then lift 3 inches and hold.
“Tight-line twitching” is for perch that are seriously bottom oriented. The only way these fish will take a bait is to suck it off the bottom. Drop your lure to the bottom and position your rod tip about 3 inches above the water and tighten up. Become familiar with the weight of the jig so you know just what it’s doing when you just barely raise your rod tip and jiggle it.
Smaller baits, nontraditional tactics—Leadhead jigs and small spoons work well in conjunction with tight-line twitching. My favorite option is a 1/32-ounce leadhead jig with the plastic body removed and the hook packed with about six maggots. Be sure the knot’s tight and tied directly to the top of the hook eye. With the jig on the bottom, slightly lift your rod tip so you just barely feel the head of the jig come up. Now jiggle for about one second and stop. The jig will quiver, twitch, and move in a semicircle on the bottom.
Stop and hold. An aggressive pickup is as obvious as a good thump with traditional techniques. More likely, though, a pickup will be a subtle lift as a fish lightly sucks in the bait, reducing the weight of the bait.
Smaller baits, sort-of-traditional tactics—Overall, for difficult perch, I’ve never found a better bait than a traditional horizontal-hanging leadhead jig with the plastic or hair removed and the hook packed with maggots. This lure can be worked precisely, is easily seen on a depthfinder, and can imitate anything a panfish might mistake for prey—tiny minnows, zooplankton, small crustaceans. It’s a bait that almost can’t be worked wrong in conjunction with a depthfinder. If you can see fish on screen, you can put the jig in a fish’s face. My experience is that lots of these fish will respond.
Use the largest jig you can get away with, which usually is about 1/32 ounce. A bait this size can be worked shallow or deep, even into 50 feet of water. Usually, though, when the fishing gets tough shallow, I move from hole to hole, using about a 1/64-ounce jig packed with maggots. I jig the bait aggressively to attract attention and then scale my jigs and jiggles down once fish approach. This bait can be worked with absolute precision once perch move in. Don’t forget to work the bottom zone, especially over a sandy bottom.
Even a tiny horizontal jig can be worked down into 30 feet of water and still be seen on a well-tuned depthfinder. For fishing in deeper water, though, one of the finest baits remains the “search lure” we’ve touted for almost 20 years. Couple a tiny horizontal jig packed with maggots with a small spoon—a 1/10-ounce Acme Kastmaster has always been a favorite of mine, but other spoons work, too. Remove the treble hook from the spoon and replace it with about 21⁄2 inches of 2- or 4-pound line with the jig tied on the end. The spoon gets the combo deep fast and adds attracting flash. The tiny jig packed with maggots remains the key to triggering fish to bite. Of course, this combo often works well in shallow water, too.
I file off most of the barb on my hooks. Perch generally are hooked in the upper lip or jaw. Keep a tight line and you have them. Barbs tear up bait and make hook penetration more difficult on light line.
Perch can be one of the most selective of all panfish. But so many options exist to respond to difficult fishing conditions. Of course, you need a variety of lure options, although if you scan back over this article, “a variety” doesn’t add up to a lot of lures and a lot of money.
Anglers who consistently bring home perch for the pan just never insist on sticking with the lure they begin the day with, anymore than they insist on only one presentation maneuver. They experiment as the day progresses, allowing the perch to tell them, in a sense, what they want that day. These are some of the options that have worked for me over more than 30 years of serious perch fishing.
How To Catch Perch