Early Season Perch
April 10, 2017
Spring into early summer offers some of the fastest and most reliable action for portly yellow perch. Guided first by the spawn and then by the need to feed, mature perch follow an internal itinerary that takes them to predictable places each year.
The action occurs across the Perch Belt, but few anglers take advantage of the opportunities. Although perch are prized catches during winter, once the ice goes, many fishermen shift their focus to walleyes. By understanding a bit about perch biology and productive presentations, it's possible to pick prime fisheries and intercept their spring wanderings to enjoy some of the year's best fishing.
Male perch typically reach sexual maturity at about three years of age, and females at age-four. But both their average size and the age at which they mature often vary from one lake to another.
Longtime perch angler Dave Weitzel, assistant area supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, sees a link between age of maturity and perch growth rates. In lakes where few perch reach trophy proportions — either due to stunting because of competition for food with other perch, or a shortened lifespan due to high predator densities, perch mature much earlier than in other fisheries.
"In some lakes with stunting or extreme predation from high numbers of pike, perch may mature at age-1 or -2, while in others, such as Rainy Lake, they don't spawn until age-4 or -5," he says. Not surprisingly, the average size of perch in lakes where the fish mature later is much higher.
Wild cards exist, however. While Weitzel reports it takes 10 years for a perch to top 10 inches in a classic North Woods perch factory like massive Lake Winnibigoshish, growth rates are much faster in other systems. In a fertile fishery like Big Stone Lake on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, for example, area fishery supervisor Chris Domeier says perch push 11 inches after just four summers. On the flip side, he says the lake's perch tend to max out when they near the foot-long mark at age-5.
Regardless of their age, mature perch are spring spawners. The spawn usually takes place shortly after ice-out at water temperatures between 45°F and 52°F, hot on the heels of the walleye spawn and about the same time as suckers. While perch don't undertake the long-distance spawning runs of some gamefish, they do move into preferred spawning areas.
Primary locations in lakes and reservoirs include shallow marshes, sloughs, and dark-water lakes connected to the main lake by narrow channels or creeks, as well as shallow, sheltered bays lying along the edge of the main lake. Where such options are limited, perch spawn in the main lake.
Perch are considered "random" spawners and don't construct nests or beds, or guard their eggs or young. Instead, the female releases eggs in gelatinous ribbons over vegetation, roots, brush, or fallen trees in shallow water. Besides keeping the eggs oxygenated, such cover offers protection and harbors food sources such as minnows and zooplankton.
In many systems, vegetation is the preferred habitat. Veteran Guide Jeff Sundin looks for smaller bays with modest plant growth, either in the form of old bulrushes or healthy stands of coontail or cabbage that survived the winter. He says that flowage systems adjacent to larger perch lakes can be particularly productive.
Perch gravitate toward such areas prior to ice-out, and may remain in the vicinity for some time after spawning, provided food is available. "Once they're done spawning, perch often hang around emerging plants like coontail that are 3 to 4 inches tall," he says. "Although perch don't spawn on rocks or gravel, there's a connection due to crayfish, so a patch of rocks or gravel in or adjacent to the vegetation makes a spot that much the better."
Sundin says the best sunken gardens hold a variety of minnows and other forage that can keep perch in the neighborhood well into summer. "Perch typically stick with this weed pattern until the water gets up into the mid-60s," he says. "On many lakes, the next big thing on the calendar is the first major crayfish hatch, which causes perch to move a little deeper, but until it happens, they hang around vegetation while the food holds out."
If you're in a knot about where to kick off your perch quest, Sundin recommends beginning with bulrush beds. "Start with the rushes and explore nearby vegetation from there," he says. "But if you're poking around in the bulrushes and start seeing spawning crappies instead, you've missed the perch spawn and need to look a little deeper."
During the spawn and postspawn, productive depths depend largely on where the best vegetation is growing. Sundin often targets 3 to 5 feet of water, but perch in clear-water lakes and impoundments may spawn as deep as 10 feet or more.
Sundin targets spring perch a couple of ways. "A lot of times you can sight-fish them, as small packs of fish roam shallow water," he says. "The water is typically clear at this time of year and perch stand out from their surroundings better than other panfish such as crappies."
Using his electric trolling motor he sneaks through prime lies, scanning the water ahead through his polarized glasses. When he spots a perch, he lobs a slipfloat rig past the fish and gently works it back to the strike zone. "You don't need an elaborate setup," he says. "A 1/16- to 1/8-ounce Lindy Frostee Jig or plain ball-head jig with a live minnow is fine."
With the vertical-hanging Frostee, Sundin skin-hooks the minnow parallel to the dorsal fin, "so the jig sits straight up and down while the minnow is stretched out horizontally." With a ball-head jig, standard nose-hooking keeps the bait lively, though you can experiment with other options. To fuel long casts with light jigs and baits, a small but heavy-for-its-size float like Thill's Wobble Bobber gets the nod. "It also twitches at the slightest movement, giving the jig more action," he says.
After pinpointing a pod of perch by sight-fishing, Sundin locks in on location. "Perch tend to stay close to whatever they're feeding on or relating to, so once you find them, you can usually throw out a marker buoy and go to work," he says. Even then, however, he rarely lets his bobber rig rest more than 20 seconds in one spot. "It's a lot like crappie fishing," he says. "Cast out, let the rig settle, then bring it halfway back to the boat, wait, and cast again."
Casting, drifting, and backtrolling jigs in 6 to 10 feet of water are other top options, particularly for locating fish you can't see. "When you find a school, hold the boat in one spot and make short pitches to keep pulling the perch closer to the boat," he says. "If you play your cards right, you can bring them into one small area where you can sit still and bounce the jig right beneath the boat."
Sundin favors similar jig weights for such maneuvers, though he often opts for a banana-shaped head like Lindy's elongated Slick Jig. "Tipped with a skull-hooked fathead, it works well for pounding bottom, hopping, and swimming," he says. He casts the jig, lets it fall to bottom, then gathers the slack and begins a series of short hops that cause the jig to pop up just above the top of the short grass and then drop back into the jungle.
When fishing vertically, he taps the jig's nose on bottom, then adds an 8- to 10-inch pop, fall, and pause to the routine. "Don't overlook the pause part of the act," he says. "Perch don't need a lot of action all the time. They have weird personalities. Some days they only bite when you make them chase the jig. Other times, you have to hold it still — and you only know by experimenting." Holds generally range from 2 to 10 seconds, but when perch begin pecking the jig on the pause, he advocates abandoning the jigging part of the presentation and holding the jig in place.
Guide and perch stalker Scott Seibert takes a similar tack when targeting main-lake perch roaming emerging vegetation in 3 to 9 feet of water in the spring and early summer. "I follow perch from late fall through winter as they move into deeper water and then back into the shallows," he says. "At late ice, it's not uncommon to catch them in emerging vegetation where there's 3 feet of ice above 2 feet of open water."
As soon as the water softens, Seibert looks for perch in the same areas he found them at late ice. When he pulls up on a promising spot, he uses the Spot-Lock feature on his Minn Kota bowmount to hold the boat in place, then hooks a fathead minnow on a 1/16-ounce tungsten Clam Drop Jig XL and executes a vertical sleight of hand.
"Let the jig fall to the bottom, bounce it to kick up some sediment, then raise it 6 to 12 inches off bottom — or just above the vegetation — and impart a subtle jigging action with lifts of an inch or so," he says. Float rigs are deadly and easy for novice clients to use, he notes. "I often work a float into the mix. The only big difference is you lip-hook the minnow to keep it alive."
While both Sundin and Seibert tip with minnows early, fishing promoter, educator, and TV show host Chip Leer reports perch have a penchant for softbaits, too. "As water temps warm through the 50s, I target hungry perch on large flats in 8 to 10 feet of water adjacent to the main lake, fishing jigs tipped with 1½- to 3-inch plastics just above bottom or the top of the weeds," he says.
Leer says standup-style heads like Northland Fishing Tackle's Mimic Minnow, which is dressed with a paddletail plastic, excel for slow swimming presentations. "Slow-rolling 6 to 12 inches off bottom outfishes snapjigging and other more aggressive approaches," he says, adding that prop jigs like Northland's Whistler Jig, and underspins like the Thumper, add flash and vibration to the show. "It pays to experiment with other softbait designs, such as an Impulse Minnow or standard curlytail grub, too," he says.
When it comes to choosing colors, Leer likes watermelon tiger but says patterns with white, fluorescent green, and orange are good, too. "The new Mimic Minnow UV color smoked perch when I tested it on Leech Lake last season, and deserves further experimentation in the months ahead," he adds. For his part, Sundin leans on perchy patterns rich in greens and oranges. "Perch feed on a variety of things, but they go out of their way to eat their own kind," he says. However, proving that you should never paint these pint-sized predators into a corner, Seibert enjoys action on the same shades of red and white glow that he uses in winter.
Tanks on the Troll
Once perch move into deeper water, Seibert works trolling tactics into his repertoire. "Longline trolling small perch- or firetiger-pattern crankbaits like a #5 or #7 Bagley Balsa Shad at 1 to 1.8 mph is a great way to cover deep weedlines in search of perch," he says. "Once you get into them, you can slow down and break out the same jigging tactics that worked earlier in the season."
Seibert's trolling program includes running 10-pound Berkley Trilene XL mono on a 10½-foot Jason Mitchell trolling rod. "The #5 Balsa Shad runs 5 to 12 feet on this setup, while the larger #7 dives from 8 to 16 feet," he says. "I typically run the smaller bait on the shallow side of the boat and the bigger one on the deep side."
Sundin, too, often shifts to a more mobile system to pinpoint postspawn perch that have moved into the main lake to patrol sandflats adjacent to drop-offs, rocks, and other sweet structure. One of his go-to systems entails trolling spinner rigs perpendicular to shore in 6 to 8 feet of water. One he finds a herd of wandering jumbos, he uses 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs tipped with minnows or grub-bodied plastics.
Into midsummer, Sundin shadows the crayfish hatch, which he says often fires up on shallow gravel and near-shore rocks before shifting onto main-lake bars. Banana jigs are as hot now as they were during the spring, with active jigging key to attracting attention.
Armed with a similar stable of tactics and primed with an understanding of what makes perch tick, you can take full advantage of the early bite and enjoy fast action for hump-backed jumbos other anglers only dream about.