Great Perch Baits
I fish for yellow perch on portions of the Great Lakes. About 80 days a year, I’m staring down an ice hole. A bass is a bass, they say, so surely a perch is a perch wherever they swim, this suggesting that a few classic lures and baits have a good chance of working, just about any time and any where. That generalization often works. As much as possible, I try to keep it simple with lures like the smallest Jigging Rapalas, a spoon or two, and a basic contingency of small jigs, always fishing aggressively—moving, moving, moving until I get on fish.
Perch can be voracious feeders, moving in packs. At other times, they get picky, so I also always remain open to slowing down and working fish over with different lures. Finding just the right lure type and size and jigging motion is important. Get those things right and color can also become critical. Just a little change up often ignites action that lasts for hours. Cleaning a few fish—examining stomach contents—hints at what’s happening or at least why it’s happening. It’s what they’re feeding on that often counts.
Weedbeds are nursery areas for young of the year panfish—small bluegills, perch, rock bass, perch, and crappies. Jumbo perch feed heavily on this forage and that’s why they often spend so much time in main-lake beds consisting of coontail, pondweed (cabbage), and milfoil. Typical depths range from 4 to 12 feet.
The #2 and #3 Jigging Raps, in perch pattern or gold, are consistent producers. For me the Rap’s the first lure down a new hole. I catch most of my fish by aggressively snapping the lure and letting it settle, before repeating the rip-settle. The lift attracts perch and brings them in, the pause triggers them. I fish aggressively whenever I can—until the perch tell me I need to do something else, by rejecting what I’m doing.
A little blade bait like the Reef Runner Cicada, with its vibrating action and compact shape, is another producer that I can fish aggressively. The top-center line-tie holds the lure horizontal a rest. Again, just lift the lure and let it settle back. It gives the fish just a little bit different look and feel.
When weedbed perch slide into a funk, I scale down to a jig and livebait or plastic presentation, again trying to imitate young-of-the-year panfish. One favorite is a small Atom Nuggie in purple or green on a gold jighead, trying to imitate a small bluegill or rockie.
The final bait in my grass bed arsenal is Storm’s 2-inch Wild Eye Sunfish. It’s almost scary the size of the fish I catch on this lure, but it’s selective for big fish and not a consistent producer of numbers of fish. Lots of fish do no more than come in and look, but it does put jumbos on the ice at times.
On the Great Lakes, perch often seek schools of emerald shiners, at times becoming so selective they won’t eat anything else. The shiners move into the largest deep harbors areas in late fall. They’re still there at early ice and the perch are right there with them. Sometimes you can see the shiner schools drifting below. Other times the perch spit them up when they come of the hole. If you can find shiners you’re usually on perch.
The Jigging Rapala is good in this situation, especially a #3 in chrome blue. Other times spoons like the ¼-ounce Acme Little Cleo work. I tip the treble hook on these lures with either a Jensen Egg or a Berkley PowerBait Egg to give the fish something to focus on.
If I’m on fish, and the bite slows, sometimes it works to fish a different part of the water column. One option is to work a pod of fish from the top down, to keep from spooking fish by not having to bring hooked fish up through the rest of the group. Then again, if I’ve been catching fish near the bottom I might raise the presentation and work it in the middle of the water column. This too at times gets a few extra fish to bite once the bite has slowed.
Invertebrates & Crayfish
Perch feed on lots of different invertebrates, from insect larvae like mayflies, damsel flies, and stoneflies. Some, including amphipods, often are associated with zebra mussel clusters.
Crayfish off all sizes also remain active throughout winter and at times perch feed on the smaller ones, including what look to be newly hatched crayfish no more than half an inch long. They look like insect larvae but on closer examination they are tiny crayfish.
It’s also no surprise on the Great Lakes that perch eat gobies. The connection often is to young-of-the-year fish that, like their parents, hold right on the bottom. The gobies are tiny, usually not more than an inch long.
If perch aren’t going for aggressive tactics with my regular line up of Jigging Rapalas or on spoons, it’s often because they’re on something other than a fish diet. One favorite change-up tactic I’ve discovered is switching to a Jigging Rapala with a red glow. Apparently there’s something about this color that the fish associate with feeding on larvae. Otherwise I continue to keep things on the aggressive side to begin with by dropping a gaudy creature like the Berkley PowerBait Nymph on a 1/32-ounce jighead.
Keeping the lures right on the bottom is vital to triggering fish. They’re grazing on the bottom, moving along slowly scrutinizing below for invertebrate forage. Bottom bouncing works at times. Bounce the lure to kick up bottom debris then pause to let the fish suck up the lure, either right off the bottom or just above it. Many other tiny offerings that mimic larvae are worth a try if fish won’t go on bigger options—tiny plastics on tiny jigheads. Some of the other articles in this Ice Fishing Guide discuss this more thoroughly.
Most good anglers realize how important it is to understand what the fish we seek are eating; it’s a vital part of the puzzle as to where fish will be. The target forage also determines the lures we chose and how we should work the lures. We don’t always have to match the hatch, but at times we need to get very close.
*Joe Balog is a promotional angler and tournament fisherman, as well as guide on Lake St. Clair and western Lake Erie.