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Panfish

Spring Into Summer Perch Fishing

by Matt Straw   |  April 15th, 2014 0

Imagine perch fishing as a spiritual quest. Would it involve ritual fires climbing into a black sky, and men dancing around it in a ring? Stamping around with rattle beads on sticks, chanting things like, “Fish eyes, spoons, redworms, lead. Give us perch and no sheepshead.” Would they have a craven image, swimming in place, its huge, implacable eyes gleaming darkly, presumably searching for plankton the size of cows?

Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters, laughed. “Maybe not that bad, but perch, around here, is religion,” he said. “People put away walleye gear when jumbos show up.” Lewis should know. His shop near Cleveland sells more bait to perch fishermen than most others combined. “Last year was excellent for perch on Lake Erie, while 2011 was poor. They say the population goes up and down, but it’s relatively stable. What matters is if you can get out on the water. In 2011 there were a lot of days where we were winded out. Size remains stable, with lots of year-classes available right now, and lots of 12-inchers being caught.”

Perch are never forgotten on the Great Lakes. Elsewhere, it’s the rare dog that hunts perch in spring and early summer. I called people across the country to ask, and few guides or known perch-heads admitted to fishing for perch during spring. But those who did said spring was, by far, the best time to do it.

Bonanza

Tony Roach, one of the nation’s premier perch-and-walleye guides, claims spring through early summer is a bonanza for perch. “Never anybody else chasing them,” he said. “Perch are the most underfished panfish that time of year and, that’s the least pressure perch get all season long. In spring, people forget about them.”

For one thing, perch don’t seem to behave like perch. “I use lures,” Roach said. “Suspend a livebait under a float and you get at least 5 times fewer strikes. I sometimes have clients that don’t let the lure hit bottom, which is critical, so I rig up floats. Everybody else is getting bit, hooking up on every cast, with no livebait. On the floats, they’re using live minnows or leeches. Floats with bait don’t work as well. It’s intriguing why they don’t favor live minnows.”

He uses lures like Rapala Jigging Raps and jigs with spinner blades, like the Northland Crappie Thumper. “Perch begin spawning just before the water hits 50°F,” he said. “I fish bigger lakes, like Leech, Winnibigoshish, and Mille Lacs, where you find perch along sparse weeds. They don’t like thick vegetation, preferring transitions to hard bottom or sand where weeds are thin. Those areas allow you to fish fast.

“I can generally find perch while fishing for smallmouths early in the season. They peck at smallmouth lures, or you see them following smallmouths out of the weeds. I’ve found my best perch areas in spring by fishing fast for bass. Perch are concentrated until the water temperature climbs above 55°F, so you find big groups right after ice-out. On Leech, where you have so many weedy areas, it’s hard to determine where to start, so I fish faster and harder. When you see a few perch, switch gears and you often find big schools of jumbos. That’s fun—because nobody’s after them.”

At 55°F to 60°F, perch start filtering out into the main basin of these large lakes. “Finding them at that point is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Roach said. “The game becomes grid creation with sonar, using GPS to cover areas thoroughly, looking quickly for pods of perch in basin areas. I spend a lot of time hunting for perch that way through early summer.”

One of the quickest indicators is a bug hatch. “You can almost always find them where mayflies are hatching,” he said. “That’s one thing to look for because the spots themselves don’t stand out. The spots aren’t hard structure—more like a lack of structure. Perch might be on transitions right at the base of the structure. In the 15- to 25-foot basin flats, I look for the fastest hard-to-soft transitions in the shortest distance. Often there’s no depth change. Abrupt transitions are more important than depth changes.”

On sonar, active pods of perch often look like Christmas trees growing off the bottom—the signal with a wide base and a skinny top. When Roach spots a pod, he stops the boat, begins to back up, and pitches a Jigging Rap or Northland Puppet Minnow about 10 to 15 feet behind the transom. “I use 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs to get down that deep,” he said. “In depths over 20 feet, I use 1/4- to 3/4-ounce Jigging Raps and Puppet Minnows.

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