November 09, 2020
Sag-bellied perch topping a pound or two are prized catches. They're rare in most waters, but you can boost your odds by targeting key waters rich in finned footballs. Finding them isn't easy, though. Factors including year-class strength, predation, fishing pressure, seasonal die-offs, and forage abundance cause perch populations to rise and fall. On smaller systems and even some large lakes, harvest pressure can quickly pluck a strong year-class. If you're not in on the action when the lake gets hot, you're too late.
One of the planet's premier perch producers is southern Ontario's Lake Simcoe. "It's a quality perch fishery that also produces quantity," says biologist and noted perch stalker Wil Wegman. "The adage that big lakes produce big perch applies to Simcoe," he says. "Every year, it produces perch close to the Ontario record of 2.45 pounds, which was taken on Lake St. Clair in 2010. Freshwater shrimp and other bite-sized invertebrates fuel the fishery. Wegman notes that fish are also on the jumbo's menu. "On a late-ice trip last winter, friends and I released many perch over 12 inches that coughed up round gobies."
Like many lakes, Simcoe sees most pressure during the hardwater season. But the spring bite yields some of the year's portliest perch, particularly in the shallow bays near Beaverton. During the summer, schools roam depths of 30 feet or more and remain catchable. As a measure of Simcoe's bounty, Wegman cites a derby last winter. "The winners had over 10 pounds for their heaviest 10 fish," he says. "The top 10 teams all had great weights, and a buddy of mine iced one over 2 pounds."
Wegman adds that nearby Lake Couchiching, about 12,000 acres, is another standout. "It's the only other nearby lake that's a gem," he says. "It may not have as many jumbos as Simcoe, but it's a fine fishery."
Guide James Vladyka, of Benson, Vermont, rates Lake Champlain as one of the region's powerhouses. "It's an amazing fishery," he says. "There are lots of 13- to 14-inchers, and you have a shot at even bigger fish."
Vladyka fishes it year-round. In spring, he targets rock shorelines and backwaters. "A bobber rig with a small Lake Fork Tackle Live Baby Shad or Maki Plastic Super Jamei on a 1/4- to 1/16-ounce jig suspended off bottom is great then," he says, noting that smelt-imitating shades of greenish-white are deadly year-round.
First-ice is Vladyka's top winter time. "Mature perch chase juvenile smelt along the outer edges of weedlines in the bays, typically in 7 to 10 feet of water," he says. "I use an underwater camera to find the transition from thick to sparse grass, then drop a Clam Epoxy Drop or Dingle Drop XL tipped with a Maki Spiiki, Wormi, or Super Jamei. The fish are cruising, so I drill a row of holes along the weededge and move from hole to hole, catching a fish or two from each one."
A number of northern Vermont lakes also hold big perch. "Inland lakes with good-sized basins in the 20- to 40-foot range offer excellent chances at trophy fish in the 16- to 17-inch range," he says. "Outside of spring, when they move shallow, winter is your best shot. Summer fishing is difficult because they spread out in deep water."
Farther south, In-Fisherman contributor Jim Gronaw reports that western Maryland's 3,900-acre Deep Creek Lake remains a standout, with rotund 14-inchers common and 2-pounders taken every year. "But the bite is seasonal," he says. "Almost all trophy perch are caught through the ice."
Ice season typically runs late December to March, with perch in shallow weedcover early in the upper end of the lake, and moving to 25 to 35 feet of water at midwinter before returning to the shallows in late February. Jigging spoons and Jigging Rapalas are top options, as are tip-ups and minnows.
Gronaw says that once boat traffic subsides in fall, Deep Creek offers opportunities to float-fish stands of green vegetation in 7 to 20 feet of water. He recommends dipping a 1/16-ounce jig tipped with a lively fathead into open pockets or drifting edges.
While he counts numerous upper Chesapeake Bay tidal tributaries among prime perch waters, he says poor recruitment has trimmed populations recently, leaving top-end perch pushing 13 inches, with fewer good options than in past years. On the flip side, he's found perch pushing 16 inches in small, public lakes that were stocked then forgotten. He encourages perch fans to seek waters offering light fishing pressure and suitable forage to foster giants. "I look for lakes that have an abundance of forage like snails, crayfish, grass shrimp, or minnows of smaller size that adult perch prefer," he says. "That way, perch continue to grow on high-protein forage, possibly reaching 2 pounds."
The Great Lakes offer several first-class perch opportunities for anglers to find roaming schools or else target prime times when fish school near shore. Lake Erie, for example, has a long history of fine open-water perch fishing in both spring and fall. In late 2014 the tradition continued on the U.S. side with excellent reports from Lorain, Fairport Harbor, and Conneaut in Ohio.
"The Canadian side of Erie merits inclusion, too," says In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer. "It's not only fast fishing, but the perch are big. Fishing is good all season on the north shore, but spring, and especially fall, seem to be peaks." Pyzer's other perch paradise on the Great Lakes is the north shore of Lake Superior between Thunder Bay and Nipigon. Black Bay, a 45-minute drive east of Thunder Bay, is particularly noteworthy.
Local perch hunter Sandro Fragale says open-water pressure is light on Black Bay, although this 36-mile-long bay produces numbers of 9- to 14-inch fish. "Fifteen- and 16-inchers have been caught, but aren't common," he notes. Winter pressure is increasing, with rental houses available at Hurkett Cove and Dorion. Fragale favors Swedish Pimples, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, and Mighty Mitch & Jungle Joe's Jig Flies.
Other notable locations include perennial producers like Little Bay de Noc, Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair, and the southern end of Lake Michigan. Dave Atkinson of Wild Bill's Bait and Tackle in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, says that the St. Mary's River yields perch up to 16 inches. "One of the hottest bites runs from ice-out through most of May," he says. "We get them on minnows in as little as 3 to 6 feet." He ranks Lake George and Baie de Wasai as top areas, but adds, "Any shallow bay with food and spawning habitat is worth checking for big perch."
Just off Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the storied waters of 14,000-acre Lake Gogebic routinely produce behemoths locals call "teeter pigs," because they don't tip over when placed on their bellies. Legendary iceman Dave Genz is a fan of the lake's winter bite. "It has a history of perch over 2 pounds," he says. "It's a different style of fishing, more like waiting for a trophy buck to come along than chasing numbers of fish." He favors a Clam Blade Spoon with a live wiggler on each treble tine.
Lake Gogebic Guide Guy Sibley notes that massive snowfalls and ensuing tough sledding also help shelter the lake's perch from extreme winter pressure. He adds there's a solid summertime bite from late June into August, with a variety of presentations from deadsticking to crankbait trolling producing fish virtually lake-wide.
Thirteen-year-old Tia Wiese put Idaho's Cascade Lake on the map in January 2015, when the 2-pound 11.68-ounce perch she caught the previous March was recognized by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a new ice-fishing tip-up world record. She was fishing with her father when the 15 ½-incher bit in 14 feet of water near a spawning flat. A week prior, her father had missed breaking the state record by a mere 4/100ths of a pound.
Such wasn't always the case on the 26,000-acre reservoir, however. "In the late '80s and '90s, there was a booming perch fishery, but by the late '90s it dwindled," says biologist Dale Allen. Research revealed a huge population of northern pikeminnow, which was blamed for perch reductions.
A major pikeminnow removal program, along with perch stocking, allowed panfish to regain a foothold. "Today's 15-inchers are offspring of stocked fish," Allen says. He believes the days of Cascade's giants are numbered. "We expect as perch numbers improve, size may decline, with 12 inches being a notable catch," he says. To tap the bite, Tom McGlashen of Tackle Tom's baitshop steers anglers toward a variety of areas, from deep structure near Sugarloaf Island to weedy west-end shallows. He says jumbos strike everything from small spoons to bass-sized tubes and grubs.
In January 2015, Wyoming's Boysen Reservoir produced a 15.25-incher weighing 2.28 pounds, setting a new record there. But Boysen's perch fishery is far from exploding. "There's always a chance at catching trophy fish because the lake's perch size structure is good, but abundance is low," says fishery biologist Joe Deromedi. He blames the decline on a combination of skyrocketing walleye numbers and poor near-shore habitat to shelter juvenile perch from predation. Still, Boysen's perch are above average. "People catch 12- to 13-inchers, especially during spawning season," he says. "And we're finally starting to see improved perch recruitment, so we may see an up-cycle again."
In Nebraska, panfish fan and fishery biologist Daryl Bauer says booming populations of Great Plains perch quickly wither under the onslaught of eager anglers. "When word gets out that a lake is hot, it gets fished down fast," he says, noting that even remote lakes are not immune. "A couple of years ago, an isolated lake developed a booming population. The only way to reach it was by crossing a couple other lakes and portaging over the Sandhills. But it got fished down fast and has yet to recover."
But Bauer says several lakes in the Sandhills region hold ample numbers of fish over 10 inches, with a good number of footballs topping 12. His top picks include Crescent, Blue, Frye, and West Long lakes. "We top out at about 14 inches - 1½ pounds or so, rarely bigger," he says.
Late fall and winter are top times for these fertile, shallow waters, after thick aquatic vegetation thins out. "In summer, you can drift a chunk of nightcrawler on a light jig or spinner rig in open pockets or over the weedtops," Bauer says. "But it's easier when the plants die back."
Other notable big-perch opportunities include North Dakota's legendary Devils Lake, which produces numbers of 3/4- to 1-pound fish and occasional sows over 2. Ice season is prime for this plains paradise, but Guide Jason Feldner also tracks down roaming herds by trolling nightcrawler harnesses until he makes contact. Once fish are found, he anchors and fishes a 1/32-ounce Lindy Jig or Watsit Jig tipped with small piece of 'crawler.
Northeast South Dakota remains a fine choice, too. Bitter Lake yielded a new state record last winter. The 2-pound 13-ounce porker was landed March 7. The previous record of 2 pounds 12 ounces also came from Bitter in 2004. Other top picks include Waubay, Thompson, and Poinsett.
Big Stone Lake, on the South Dakota-Minnesota border, has enjoyed a perch renaissance. Guide and host of Fish Ed television Jon Thelen ranks it among his favorite waters. "It's a great destination," he says, noting that small Lindy Jigs and Little Nippers tipped with a minnow are his favorite ways to waylay summer-into-fall jumbos moving from the basin to the shoreline breaks. "In late summer, big perch begin following baitfish toward shore, concentrating the action in predictable places. A similar situation occurs on southern Lake of the Woods," he says. "Big perch roam the main basin throughout summer, but move toward the south shore in early fall, gathering over transitions from soft to firm bottom."
Manitoba's Interlake Region also merits mention. Nestled between lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, it offers a variety of waters large and small offering stellar perch fishing. Pyzer praises the Shoal Lake system, in particular, and Guide Donovan Pearase says anglers push the envelope each season, uncovering new waters where breaking the 15-inch barrier becomes reality.
Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contacts: Dave Atkinson, Wild Bill's Bait and Tackle, 906/635-5556; Jason Feldner, 701/351-1294; Tom McGlashen, Tackle Tom's, 208/382-4367; Kevan Paul, 641/529-2359; Donovan Pearase, 204/990-2171; Guy Sibley, 906/285-3179; Jon Thelen, 612/720-3837; James Vladyka, Fish Hounds Outdoors, 802/774-8042.