Catching Perch In Fall
September 04, 2013
Mid- to late fall typically finds few perch anglers on the water, but nonetheless offers ample options for diehards willing to hang in there until winter closes the book on another openwater season. The October-November timeframe offers a variety of scenarios for sag-bellied jumbo yellow perch across the continent.
Starting in the East, Jim Gronaw — longtime In-Fisherman contributor on panfish topics — notes two vastly different scenarios each offering chances for perch surpassing the foot mark, and tipping the scale well over a pound.
"Maryland's Deep Creek Lake is a premier perch fishery," he says. "During summer, the 3,900-acre lake is a tourist trap. But come fall, when the crowds go home, its weedy coves and flats are great places to consistently catch perch measuring 13 inches or better." Gronaw has broken the 2-pound barrier while fishing Deep Creek in winter, so he knows giant perch are possible.
The Deep Creek Lake setup is similar to countless natural lakes and impoundments where healthy stands of vegetation persist into autumn. According to Gronaw, weedbeds in 7 to 8 feet of water, along with deeper beds in 18 to 20 feet, are Meccas of late-season perch activity. The variance in depths on Deep Creek largely reflects which side of the lake you're on — the shallow, fertile upper end or its deeper, less eutrophic lower reaches. "Rocky points at the same approximate depths can be good, too," he notes.
To target weed perch, he suspends a 1/16-ounce, bright-colored jighead tipped with a live fathead or medium shiner beneath a Thill River Master float. Drifting edges and picking pockets or slots in the salad works well, at least until lake managers lower the water level for the winter. "This brings weeds that were 4 feet from the surface right to the top, and makes it difficult to fish the interior of the beds," he says. "At that point, edges are where it's at."
Tidal Wave Perch
Bobbering shallow weeds works in Deep Creek and other inland lakes, but the swirling depths of tidal rivers like the lower Susquehanna and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries offer a different, but equally appealing fall perch scenario.
"Everyone around here fishes yellow perch during the spawning run in February and March, but few people target them now," Gronaw says. "Perch are almost into their wintering phase, holding in deep holes and on ledges in 20 to 40 feet of water. They're catchable on bladebaits or spoons tipped with minnows, but you need to play the tide because every six hours the fish relocate, tucking behind ledges or humps as the current changes."
Top presentations include 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Kastmasters, Swedish Pimples, Reef Runner Cicadas, and bucktail jigs, tipped with a 2-inch mummichog or "bull" minnow, impaled through the nose or skull. "You can also stack two 1/8-ounce lures — such as a spoon on the bottom and bucktail on top — 18 to 24 inches apart on a single rig," he notes.
Great Lakes Bonanza
Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters in Cleveland, says now's the time to tap big numbers of Lake Erie perch 11 inches and up. "This is the best time to catch the biggest fish," he says. "The schools are tighter than in summer, so they're easier to target. Plus, the fish are moving shallower — into depths of 28 to 32 feet — following the minnow migration toward shore."
Lewis reports most perch patrollers wield spreader or bottom rigs tipped with emerald shiners, but doctored jigging spoons and Jigging Rapalas are gaining ground among the ranks of serious trophy hunters. "Remove the treble hook and replace it with a 4-inch dropper of 8-pound fluorocarbon," he says. "Add a #4 long-shank hook and a lip-hooked shiner and you're in business."
Gentle jigstrokes are the rule. Lewis lifts the jig about 12 inches, and then lets it fall slowly back toward bottom. "The idea is to start a competition among the perch," he explains. "When a big perch sees what it believes are smaller perch attacking the minnow, it instinctively reacts by grabbing the bait." Perch-colored spoons and Jigging Raps aid the illusion, he notes.
Upstream on Michigan and Ontario's Lake St. Clair, big-water panfish fiend Joe Balog finds October and November perch relating to relatively shallow vegetation, in depths from 6 to 13 feet. "They're starting to school now, but haven't quite made the move into harbors or the main lake basin," he says. "The key is finding them. Once you do, catching them is easy."
Like Gronaw, his favorite setup hinges on green weeds, specifically a lush, still-green stand of cabbage sprouting along a slow-tapering transition from sand to soft bottom. "The best beds are typically located on the main lake, where they're brushed with a touch of wind and current," he notes.
Forage is also a driving force in determining which weeds hold fish. "This time of year, perch may eat a goby here and crayfish there, but they're looking for big schools of shiners," he says.
With a long ultralight spinning outfit, Balog weeds out unproductive water by deftly working artificials through the upper reaches of cabbage canopies. Go-to baits include an 1/8-ounce Johnson Beetle Spin, small in-line spinner, and 2- to 3-inch tube rigged on a 1/8- to 3/16-ounce jighead. He favors flashy, shiner-like finishes for spinners, but likes watermelon or smoke-and-purple patterns in tubes.
The presentation is simple but deadly. "Say you're on a cabbage bed growing to within 2 feet of the surface in 10 feet of water," he explains. "Make a long cast. Let the lure settle a couple of feet, then begin a steady, swimming retrieve that ticks the weedtops. Perch holding in the weeds rise up to crush it, or at least follow it to the boat."
To turn the lookers into biters, Balog keeps a second rod rigged with a throwback bait ready. For example, a tube offers great backup for a Beetle Spin. "Bottom line, if there are perch in a cabbage patch, you know it within a cast or two," he adds.
Once on a hot school, Balog milks as many fish as possible by casting artificials, then drops anchor and switches to a double-hook perch rig or single-hook slipbobber rig. Both setups are baited with live emerald shiners, which he says are the best baits by far for fall jumbos.
A late-fall perch bonanza also awaits on southern Lake Michigan, says Captain Ralph Steiger, who runs charters from Chicago, Illinois, to Hammond, Indiana. "October is usually pretty quiet until around Halloween," he says, explaining that the action gradually picks up off Calumet Park in 28 to 35 feet of water. But the bite shifts into high gear from early to mid-November, when numbers of perch running 12 to 15 inches are taken in 41- to 51-foot depths on clay flats 1 to 4 miles offshore.
"That's prime time for big perch," he says. "Fish over 21â„2 pounds are possible. Depending on the weather, the bite can last into December."
Tapping southern Lake Michigan's November bite is far from a no-brainer. With scattered schools of bottom-hugging jumbos roaming a featureless expanse, Steiger relies on electronics such as his Lowrance HDS-10 Gen2 sonar to spot low-riding pods of portly perch. "I zoom in so all I see is the bottom 3 to 4 feet of the water column," he says. "It takes some searching, but when you find the fish, you can limit out in a hurry."
Once fish are marked, he deploys a perch fly rig consisting of a 10-pound fluorocarbon dropper, 3/4- to 2-ounce sinker, and two weightless hair flies tied on #2 or #4 hooks spread 10 to 12 inches apart, with the lowest jig riding about 10 inches above the sinker. Orange and chartreuse are top colors in fair weather, and white or pink under cloudy skies.
Each hook holds a large, nose-hooked fathead or small golden shiner. "The most important thing about fishing this rig is, when the sinker hits bottom, let it lie there, so there's a slight bow in your line," Steiger says. "With a quality rod and low-stretch braid or premium 8-pound mono mainline, you feel a tick when a perch hits." Keeping the baits hovering slightly off bottom typically nets the most perch, while allowing the entire rig to recline on the clay nets the trophies of the trip.
On the High Plains paradise known as Devils Lake, North Dakota, fall perch can be hard to find, but worth the effort once contact is made. "Schools are roaming and tough to pin down," says veteran guide Jason Feldner, proprietor of Perch-Eyes Guide Service. "It takes a lot of work to find them, but once you do, you can really rack up some numbers."
To narrow the lake's 160,000 acres into manageable portions, he focuses on classic late-season haunts such as shallow bays featuring sand or gravel bottom. Key depths range from 10 to 14 feet. In search mode, he pulls nightcrawler harnesses behind bottom bouncers, straining water until the telltale tap-tap-tap of an aggressive perch betrays its more secretive schoolmates' location.
"There's no mistaking a perch bite, even if you don't hook the fish," says Feldner. "Once I find them, I anchor to stay on top of the school."
Slipbobber setups and tightlining both shine in such scenarios. "I rig a half-inch piece of 'crawler on a 1/32-ounce, green Lindy Jig or Watsit Grub, drop it to the level of the fish, and deadstick it — letting wave or boat action impart just enough action to interest passing perch," he notes.
Nebraska's sandhills offer a virtually untapped fall perch nirvana, as most of the outdoor crowd focuses on other pursuits. "Once hunting seasons open, only a handful of guys are on the water," says Daryl Bauer, a biologist with the state's Game and Parks Commission.
The few remaining anglers afloat get first crack at jumbo perch and other panfish that have hidden in a cloak of thick weedgrowth all summer. "Submergent vegetation dies back in fall, and the fish become more accessible to anglers as they roam flats outside the old beds," he explains.
Structure is scarce in the Sandhills' shallow, bowl-shaped basin lakes, and most depths run less than 10 feet. To cover water in search mode, Bauer recommends drifting a small chunk of nightcrawler or crayfish tail on a light jig or small spinner rig. "Bounce it along bottom until you find the fish," he says.
Perch grow quickly in the region's productive lakes. "There are lots of 10s and 12s, with 14-inchers possible," he says. Options abound, but a trifecta of top waters include Blue, Crescent, and Island lakes, all in or near the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
For jumbo seekers within road-trip range, this trio of waters — like the other destinations we've detailed — offers a perfect venue to sample catching perch in fall. If travel isn't an option, chances are you can still put one or more of these patterns to work on your home waters, and enjoy last-minute perching before winter closes the curtain on our open-water adventures.
*Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contact: Craig Lewis, Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934, erieoutfitters.com; Capt. Ralph Steiger, 219/688-3593, captainsteiger.com; Guide Jason Feldner, 701/351-1294, percheyes.com; Guide Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375, jeffsundin.com.