February 18, 2022
By Steve Ryan
Perch populations are cyclical. A good hatch can inundate a system with juveniles—and, if conditions are right on the right fisheries, some of them can surpass 13 inches in four years or less. These booms drive a gold-rush mentality among anglers and soon enough a booming fishery for big fish can go bust. It continues to be difficult to get anglers to turn back big perch to help to sustain great fishing for big fish.
But most fisheries don’t have the capacity to produce giants and there’s little reason not to harvest fish that top out at 11 or 12 inches. Too, anglers like In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange sometimes fish for 7-inch fish to use in tempura recipes. He’s on the ice at least once each year to catch smaller fish.
Generally, though, perch measuring 8, 9, and 10 inches are abundant, they’re great to eat, and fun to catch. The idea that putting back smaller fish to grow lots of bigger fish seems logical to many novice anglers, but population dynamics don’t work that way much of the time. That doesn’t mean that sorting through 8-inchers to take home a meal of 10-inchers doesn’t make sense at times.
So, we celebrate this winter season by noting some of the best fisheries for big fish, but we also mention a few other destinations for fish of more modest sizes, where they fuel a lot of fun and great eating. Of course, in an article like this we can’t cover them all. We can get you thinking and exploring to find the best fisheries in the areas where you fish.
On the jumbo side of things, Lake Cascade, Idaho, remains the greatest spot in North America to put a 2.5-pound or even 3-pound fish on the ice. We cover Cascade in a moment.
In contrast, and more typical, are fisheries like those in the Iowa Great Lakes Region of Northwest Iowa. Here, a bevy of lakes—glacial outliers—are set just far enough away from other regional fisheries farther north in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, to get a lot of attention from local and regional anglers, and from anglers in population centers just to the south in Des Moines and Omaha. This area can be one of the busiest spots in the country at times. And perch often are the main reason people are there to fish.
The two main lakes are Spirit and West Okoboji, but smaller lakes also are productive at times. Spirit in particular can grow blocky fish surpassing 12 inches, but usually, as seems to be the case now, most of the fish run 8 to 11 inches—beautiful fish, indeed, with 12-inchers tossed in. There’s a generous 25-fish limit, but a dozen fish is enough for several great meals.
In most areas like this across North America, the fishing is spotlighted by knowledgeable folks in top-notch baitshops that keep close track of the fishing, offering up-to-date advice on tactics and fishing locations, along with fish cleaning and, of course, the requisite hot lures and bait. Three great shops operate in this area: Kabele’s, in Spirit Lake; Oh Shucks, in Milford; and Stan’s, also in Milford. Fisheries like this exist across the Ice Belt. You just need to search them out in your area.
Cascade’s Still the One
Lake Cascade, Idaho, continues to have no equal when it comes to giant perch. The lake has made headlines for almost decade, and it continues to support a booming population of fish in the 10- to 16-inch range. Indeed, fish longer than 10 inches make up the majority of Cascade’s population.
How long can it last? Smaller perch are prey for jumbos, thus a decline in numbers of fish below about 8 inches. Low-prey numbers and mortality of large fish could combine to cause a dip in numbers of big fish. The hope is that any dip would allow a generation of medium-size perch to quickly become jumbos.
Bill Lavin, who guides on Cascade, had a banner year in 2019, with clients catching numerous trophies topping 2 pounds. Low water pushed him off his favorite shallow spots, but the deep-water bite remained strong all season. He expects another stellar ice season.
Using live baitfish is prohibited on Cascade, so Lavin relies on maggots, waxworms, and portions of nightcrawler to tip lures. Artificial baits also work well, including the #5 Rippin’ Raps, Dynamic Lures’ HD Ice, and Salmo Chubby Darter, especially in perch patterns. Popular spots for perch include areas close to the river channel near Sugarloaf Island and Poison Creek.
Cascade perch are long and girthy. Fourteen-inch fish usually weigh 2 pounds and 15 inchers may weigh 2.5 pounds. Fish measuring 16.5 and 17 inches have been caught, raising the specter of perch weighing more than 3 pounds this winter.
There are other fisheries in the West, notably in Montana, with Holter Reservoir deserving a look for both numbers of perch, and some fish pushing past 13 inches.
Devils Lake is by far the most famous fishery in North Dakota. With so much water and so many fish, some of which are of jumbo status, it’s no surprise that there are many great guides: Zippy Dahl of the famous Perch Patrol Guide Service; in the western part of the lake at Minnewaukan, Aaron McQuoid is a good contact. Another option is Cody Roswick, who fishes Devils Lake, but also keeps track of numerous smaller waters that grow 12- to 14-inch perch around Valley City.
In South Dakota, high water and scuds are the primary catalysts for the production of big perch. Jarrod Fredericks operates South Dakota Fishing Guide service and is optimistic that the floods of 2019 will drive the next generation of perch.
In 2012, flooding had its greatest effect on areas south of Highway 212. That meant good hatches on Poinsett and surrounding sloughs. But Fredricks insist you shouldn’t get any one lake stuck in your head. Spots off the beaten path often are the best producers. And limited fishing pressure means fish are more eager to bite.
He looks for smaller waters that have limited access and are full of scuds. Some of these waters can produce 13-inch perch in three years. Food isn’t a problem for slough perch, and these lakes are shallow bowls with little structure, so especially early in the year he uses noisy lures such as Rapala Rippin’ Raps to attract and keep perch cycling through an area. A few deadstick rods are set nearby to cash in on reluctant fish.
During midseason he goes silent with spoons like the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon, tipped with a minnow head or waxie. He also uses automatic hook-setting devices such as Automatic Fisherman, Jaw Jackers, and Gill-O-Tines. Many of the biggest fish of the season are caught on setlines positioned away from the crowd.
Admittedly, many waters are hard for visiting anglers to pinpoint, and some are private. But there also are opportunities on bigger waters that usually produce big perch each season. Poinsett was mentioned. Dry Lake #2, near Willow, can be good at times. Both Bitter and Waubay in the Webster area usually produce big perch. Sportmans Cove in Webster serves up a great weekly fishing report for the area with a phone call to 605/345-2468.
Don’t forget Big Stone Lake, an hour to the east of Webster, on the border of South Dakota and Minnesota. It has one of the highest-density perch populations of any lake in the Midwest, with most fish running 9 to 11 inches. Artie’s Baitshop in Ortonville is a solid option for up-to-date information on the fishing.
Green and Gold by the Bay
As we travel farther east, to Green Bay, we bypass big waters with a tradition of producing perch. Mille Lacs always has potential for bigger fish. So does Leech Lake. And Winnibigoshish is a perennial choice for fish from 9 to 11, and sometimes 12 inches. But on to Green Bay, which has a history of supporting a healthy sportfishing and a commercial perch fishery. A decade ago, southern Lake Michigan was one of the greatest spring fisheries for jumbos. Those days are over, but the Green Bay fishery has rebounded and is worth a nod this season.
High-water years contributed to the resurgence of big fish. The first signs of a new boom on the Bay were hordes of smaller perch on the west coast of the Bay during late ice in 2016. That spring, walleye anglers also began catching 12- to 17-inch perch on #7 Rippin’ Raps. The ice bite for jumbos has gradually picked up across the Bay since then.
Green Bay perch reach trophy status by feeding lake shiners and round gobies. So weedcover is less critical to finding perch. Look for rock reefs and mussel beds on the east shore of the Bay and bottom-composition changes on the west.
During much of winter, jumbos hold in the 20- to 60-foot range. To get to these depths and counter the effects of current, heavy, compact spoons, such as Acme Rattlemasters, Clam Speed Spoons, or VMC Rockers are favored, usually tipped with a minnow head. Pound bottom, raise the spoon a few inches, and keep it in constant motion with a tight jigging action. If whitefish don’t find it first, it’s a perfect meal for perch the shape of a football.
As the season progress, perch move shallower. They’re always on the move, with sandflats with scattered mussel beds adjacent to spawning marshes being key spots. Sight-fishing is an option. Try bright colored tungsten jigs like the new Custom Jigs & Spins Wolfinkee, tipped with a lake shiner.
Lake Simcoe, in southern Ontario, has been a perch powerhouse for more than a quarter of a century, and the introduction of round gobies in 2004 may be fueling the next chapter of giant Simcoe perch. The fishery has evolved with the introduction of these small bottom scurrying fish, and there is no bust in sight for Simcoe’s girthy perch that routinely hit the 2-pound mark at 15 inches.
Steve Rowbotham has fished these waters for more than 25 years and guides for perch, whitefish, lake trout, and smallmouth bass. He notes that in recent years all these fish are getting bigger. “Whitefish used to average 3 pounds,” he says. “Now they average 5. Lakers have gone from 6 or 7 pounds to 12 to 13. We catch 8-pound smallmouths each season, and some of the perch run a hefty 16 inches.”
But new locations and tactics are in order. “Early in the season we fish weedgrowth in less than 10 feet of water,” he says. “Cook’s Bay is a popular spot all winter and it produces big perch during the first part of January.
“Ten years ago, jumbos were concentrated there all season in the weeds and feeding on scuds. That’s changed. Sometime in January the big perch go in search of gobies in deeper water. You can still catch 100 small perch a day in the weeds, but you need to push deeper to get bigger fish.”
In deeper water, he sets up on sand-to-gravel transitions that he maps in fall with down- and side-imaging on his Humminbird Helix. He saves waypoints and uses them on the ice. The most productive depths are in the 13- to 30-foot range.
Two rods are allowed per angler, so he might jig with a bigger Williams spoon to call in fish. Once fish are marked on sonar, he often uses a tungsten jig dressed with a few Berkley Power Nuggets. Tungsten jigs are favored since jumbos generally come through in packs of 4 to 8 fish, and the fast-sinking tungsten gets down fast to trigger multiple fish before they move on.
During late season, perch move back into 6 to 12 feet of water and feed more aggressively. He concentrates on bays that have inflows from creeks where perch spawn.
Another big-water fishery that may be set to boom is Lake St. Clair. Multiple high-water years and increased weedgrowth have strengthened an already strong perch fishery. Mitchell’s Bay is a popular. Find thicker weed patches and position on the edge of this cover for a fun day of action. But here, too, with such a thriving perch population, anglers often must sort through fish to bag a limit of 9- to 12-inchers. Use bigger lures and be prepared to hole hop.
Meanwhile, the harbors and bays from Toledo, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie, as well as Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron, and Sodus Bay and Chaumont on Lake Ontario, continue to deliver quality perch to a waiting army of ice anglers. These fisheries have long been stable options for catching a mess of eaters, although in recent years, perch of 15 and 16 inches have been showing up, too. Many of the giant fish travel in modest schools that can’t withstand press coverage; however, for those anglers willing to put in the effort, these and other fisheries in the Finger Lakes Region are ready to produce in a big way.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an exceptional multispecies angler who has been writing for In-Fisherman publications for more than two decades.