January 01, 2015
By Dan Johnson
Portly yellow perch fuel our hardwater dreams. But fish pushing two pounds are as real as you and me. Catching these beauties can be a matter of location and luck, but not for savvy anglers practiced in the art of finding and catching the biggest, baddest deep perch.
Sometimes we need to look for jumbos roaming the abyss. While shallow vegetation and structure yield jumbos under the right conditions, deep water with ample baitfish more often houses schools of giants. Just ask a High Plains iceman, Guide Jason Mitchell. He routinely plays the deep game on his home waters of Devils Lake, North Dakota, and in other fisheries across the Ice Belt.
"From first ice to late winter, you can always find perch deep on Devils," he says. "There are so many bug hatches, plus various species of minnows that we catch them in depths of 50 feet or more, including incredible schools that can be 10 to 15 feet thick. Big fish are in that mix, too. In recent winters, we've caught perch over 2 pounds."
Deep is relative, of course. "No matter where I'm fishing, I always look for the deepest basins," Mitchell says. "That can mean more than 50 feet in a main-lake basin, or less than 20 in a shallow bay. The key is focusing on the deepest water available in the system, or in that area of the lake or bay."
Because perch are roamers, Mitchell admits that finding a school can require a search. "They can be anywhere," he says. "But big perch are a lot like cattle. Cows wander the pasture grazing here and there, but tend to gather along fencelines and in the corners. Perch do the same in basins — they roam until they hit the edge — so I start my search along the basin perimeter."
Breaklines that stair-step from shallow into deep water often form the boundaries of perch pastures. Mitchell seeks areas where depth changes coincide with transitions in bottom composition, such as where firm sand or gravel gives way to muck. If you don't find them along the fence, Mitchell suggests sending a scouting party into the basin to round up the wandering herd.
He cautions that basin-dwelling perch may be tucked tight to the bottom or hovering high in the water column, depending on what they're eating. "In Devils Lake, where perch feed primarily on freshwater shrimp and bloodworms, they tend to be bottom-oriented," he says. But in lakes where baitfish and invertebrates offer an easy meal closer to the surface, he's seen clouds of fish suspended high.
Light conditions also contribute to perch's height in the water column, he notes. "Bluebird skies tend to fire up the deepest bite, while in overcast weather I look shallower on structural edges, or closer to the bottom of the ice," he says.
Sonar is key to finding fish, but Mitchell cautions that less active perch are low-riders that are notoriously hard to detect. "I've found a Vexilar flasher most effective for marking bottom huggers," he says. "If the bottom flutters, you know something's down there." To remove all doubt whether jumbos are in the neighborhood, he drops a jigging spoon.
His favorite search spoons include Northland's Macho Minnow and Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, in weights of up to 1/4 ounce. Once fish are located, he often relies on an 1/8-ounce Buck-Shot tipped with waxworms, spikes, or a minnow head. Horizontal-hanging jigheads sweetened with jiggly-tailed soft plastics are also top options. Shades of gold, perch, and glow all produce. "I also like the Buck-Shot Spoon, which has an optically brightened UV finish that can make a difference in low-light conditions."
Blips rocketing up to greet the spoon are a great sign, especially when the reception ends with a tug on your line. Perch that rise but only sniff before drifting back downward demand more finesse. "Small spoons that fish heavy are great when perch want a smaller profile. But you need extra weight to reach depths of 30 feet or more," he says, noting that Northland's new Tungsten Sliver Spoon, available in weights down to 1/16 ounce, is a favorite.
Dropper rigs also excel for tough-bite jumbos. "I use long droppers, in the 15- to 18-inch range," he says. "People worry about snags with such long lines, but that's rarely a problem. When you rock the rod tip, the extra length allows the dropper to swing from side to side, which drives finicky perch crazy." For a subtle presentation, he uses a deadstick rod like the 28-inch medium-action Meat Stick he designed for Clam Outdoors.
"Even with a sensitive rod, bite detection can be tricky," he continues. "Perch have to glide forward with the bait before you feel them or see the rod tip move. If they don't swim with the bait, you don't know they're there until you lift the line." When light conditions allow, an underwater camera takes the guesswork out of the process. Mitchell notes that cameras also reveal misfires such as when perch are hitting the wrong end of a jig — which dictates tweaks such as beefing up the amount of meat on the hook.
Mitchell feels one of the most important aspects to successfully targeting deep jumbos is determining their attitude and matching your strategy to it. "Reading the mood of the fish is critical," he says. "When perch are aggressive, running and gunning with a rattle spoon is the best plan. When they're not, hunker down in the corner of a fenceline and finesse those funneling through that spot. It's not easy, but the rewards can be impressive."
Multispecies guide Jon Thelen patterns deep-water jumbos on massive fisheries including Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, and Lake Winnibigoshish, plus numerous smaller waters. His deep game centers on finding bottom content transitions that offer mature perch multiple dining options.
"The first thing I look for is soft bottom meeting hard," he says. "Mucky substrates hold a variety of insect life that perch root out of the mud, while harder bottoms harbor minnows." Depths vary by lake, but he classifies anything over 25 feet as deep.
A variety of presentations work, but one of his favorites is Lindy's new Perch Talker. A dropper-style lure featuring a combination of colored brass beads and discs, the Perch Talker was released in summer 2014, but Thelen fished it extensively across the Midwest during its development the previous winter. "The beads and discs click and rattle, attracting perch from a distance," he says. "And because of the dropper configuration, it works for neutral as well as aggressive fish."
Thelen tailors tippings to the predominant forage. "When working big perch feeding on bugs in soft-bottom areas, I use eurolarvae and waxworms," he explains. "For jumbos along the transition or over on the hard-bottom side, I switch to minnow heads."
In either case, he begins his jigging cadence with a heavy hand. "I'm fairly aggressive," he says. "The more you jig, the more noise you make. Once I mark fish on sonar, I tone it down to a jiggle or simply stop moving the lure altogether." To detect subtle bites, he wields a light panfish rod. "Some guys like a medium-light walleye rod, but an ultralight bluegill or crappie setup lets you feel soft bites without letting perch know you're on the other end," he says.
His eyes fixed on the screen of a Humminbird Ice 55 flasher, Thelen often anticipates bites before they happen. "When a fish moves up to the bait, I pay close attention to the rod tip," he says. "If it moves, or I lift and feel the weight of a fish, I set the hook."
By following Thelen and Mitchell's lead, it's possible to pattern giant perch roaming the depths of fisheries across the North. Take their advice and follow fencelines and transitions to find jumbos in the abyss all winter long.
Bobby Garland Crappie Baits