Alchemy was, most famously, all about turning lead to gold. During the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, it was hoped that some combination of science and magic could get the job done, but alas, lead remains the stuff of cheap depth finders — the kind perch fishermen clip to their Carharts.
We can't turn lead to gold, but we can help you turn 10-inch perch into jumbos. The ones I call "jumbies" (jumbo perch 14 inches and up) live different lifestyles than their smaller, younger brethren. Jumbies form cliques. They can leave cover when predators are on the prowl. They move farther out on the flats when insect activity goes bonkers on the soft basin substrates after mid winter. Much of the year they have a different diet than smaller perch. They travel in smaller packs, eat at different restaurants, march to a different drummer.
Life choices of the jumbo are the specialty of alchemist Jon Thelen, product promotions manager for Lindy Fishing Tackle. He turns average perch lakes into gold mines. "On most lakes, I can find the bigger units," he says. "On lakes with real promise, I find 14-inchers pretty consistently.
"On lakes like Minnesota's Mille Lacs, most perch anglers look to the vast mudflats away from structure to hold the biggest perch," he says. "That may be true for numbers, because little perch want to stay away from structure when feeding for fear of becoming dinner themselves. At times, bigger perch use structure to ambush the larger meals they need to sustain their jumbo bulk. They need minnows in their diet. But jumbos usually don't prowl the tops of structure with walleyes during low-light periods because they spent the first part of their lives running for their lives up top during those prime walleyes times."
Jumbos usually feed at the base of a structure. "Look at spots where you expect to catch walleyes once the sun hits the tree tops," he says. "Concentrate around the base of those structures from mid morning to early evening, near the transitions that separate bottom types."
The more isolated these structures are, the better they can be. But, as winter progresses, the eggs of various insects begin to hatch into aquatic forms, drawing jumbos out onto basin flats. The same tenets apply: If you're catching smaller perch, keep moving. Jumbos often move farther afield than smaller perch. Look for isolated rockpiles, reefs, and hard-bottom humps.
"Jumbos like structure surrounded by soft bottom," he says. "Those kinds of areas offer two primary sources of food. Within a short distance, they can find invertebrates and the meatier minnows they need to maintain their figure."
At 8 to 9 inches a perch changes feeding preference from primarily invertebrates and insect larvae to a combination of invertebrates and small minnows, according to Thelen. "The smallest minnows, like young spottail shiners, become increasingly important in growing perch to 12 inches," he says. "Lots of minnows begin to appear in the stomach contents of 8-inch perch.
"Six-inch fish avoid areas where walleyes and other larger predatory fish feed, but jumbos spend more time near those fish," he says. "We often set up in an area to fish for walleyes and catch jumbos during periods when the walleye bite's slow. Perch can't see well in the dark, so they don't feed in unison with walleyes even though they're after the same things — as I've said, typically minnows."
Jumbos punch in during the middle of what blue-collar guys call first shift and check out during the middle of second shift. "The jumbos often come in behind a school of walleyes in mid morning, then they beat walleyes to the cafeteria in the afternoon by showing up earlier. Since jumbos feed at the base of structures versus the tops, they need a little more light penetration. The best times for jumbos tend to be between 9 am and 3 pm throughout much of winter."
Big perch often are more curious and less skittish than smaller ones. Thelen: "Jumbos often respond readily to rattling baits like the Lindy Darter and the Lindy Rattln' Flyer Spoon. They also like things they haven't seen before, like the Lindy Slick Jig, especially when you pound it on the bottom. That really draws fish in. For the Rattln' Flyer Spoon and Slick Jig I tip with a small minnow or a minnow head, selecting for larger perch by using a large presentation package."
Thelen contends that if you want jumbos, stick with minnows most of the time. If perch come in and look but won't bite, deadstick a minnow on a bare hook or on small jighead. At times it helps to pinch away a tiny section of the minnow's tail before dropping it down so the minnow can't get away so easily. Deadsticking is deadly for fish that won't respond to flashy spoons, noisy lures, and glow jigs.
One good way to find perch is to fish with a group of anglers equipped to move. Cover ice by leap frogging, spending 5 to 10 minutes at holes and moving on. Thelen typically cuts holes farther apart than some anglers might in their search for fish — at least 50 to 75 feet apart. He uses a Humminbird Ice 55 sonar unit to see what's happening below. "I don't just look for fish," he says. "I fish each hole for about 5 minutes. It doesn't take long to call perch in with a rattling lure. That's why I stretch the hole pattern. We cover more water by calling fish in instead of trying to get right over them. At times when you're on a school you need to tighten up the pattern to stay on fish.
"I use a Humminbird 385 CI with a LakeMaster chip to choose drilling locations. There's a sequence: I drill along the edge of the base of structure for 50 to 100 yards. At both ends of that line I drill out towards deep water about 100 yards, creating a 'C' with squared ends. If they aren't feeding on the edge, we work out onto the flat."
He has 3 rods rigged and ready: One has an aggressive lure like the 11„3-inch Lindy Darter to pick off the most active fish and call in curious ones. A second holds a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Rattln' Flyer Spoon. The last rod is rigged with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Slick Jig.
"The Slick Jig is for perch away from structure," he says. "Those fish usually are feeding on larva by rooting them out of the bottom. The Slick Jig's weight-forward design makes it perfect for pounding or crawling along bottom. If I'm close to structure, I add a whole minnow. As I move further away from the structure I might switch to a waxworm or maggots. You often see a preference develop during yearly periods and also during a day."
Time to hit the water. Time to turn pesky bait peckers into heavy piles of sassy gold.
The closest thing to universal colors, according to Jon Thelen, are natural forage patterns, touched up with bright, reflective colors. "Lindy Darters, Frosty Spoons, Rattlin' Flyers, and Slick Jigs in Golden Shiner, Shiner, Perch, and Rainbow attract from a distance in any color water," he says. "They work everywhere I've fished for perch through the ice. Experiment to find the right color for the conditions at hand."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an exceptional multispecies angler and writer who has been working with the In-Fisherman staff for more than two decades.
3 Devils Lake, North Dakota
This ever expanding perch mecca is again on the upswing for trophy-size perch. North Dakota Fish and Game reports that the lake's perch population is at the highest level since 2003. With strong year-classes from both 2006 and 2007, perch in the 10- to 14-inch range will make up a large percentage of the catch this year. Contact: Guide Jason Mitchell, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net; The Perch Patrol, 701/351-3474, perchpatrol.com
9 Lake Michigan, Indiana
Big water means plenty of opportunities to intercept roving schools of jumbo perch that can number in the thousands. High winds in spring have reduced angling pressure during the last two spawning cycles, and 2013 should be a banner year for fish in the 12- to 15-inch range. The prespawn bite starts in deep water over clay bottom during early spring, with fish moving to shallower rock and weededges in summer and fall. Contact: Capt. Ralph Steiger, 219/688-3593, captainsteiger.com
7 Finger Lakes, New York
Perch thrive in these 11 glacier-formed, deep, clear waters. Multiple lakes in close proximity allow for lake-hopping for beautifully colored perch. Seneca Lake draws much of the attention, but perch over 12 inches are in all of the lakes. Contact: Capt. John Gaulke, 607/319-0450, fingerlakesanglingzone.com
4 Glacial Lakes, South Dakota
With more than 50 lakes near the town of Webster, each year sees different lakes peaking for perch in the 9- to 13-inch range. Fertile waters from recent flooding help to ensure consistent good year-classes of perch. Bonus fish include a nice mix of crappies, bluegills, walleyes, and pike. Contact: Guide Cory Ewing, 605/929-3894, waubaylakeguideservice.com
1 Interlake, Manitoba
Situated between the mammoth waters of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, local fisheries range from natural valley lakes of 30 square miles, to shallow inland lakes of modest size. Fantastic perch fishing runs from early December through ice-out. Plenty of perch hit the 12-inch mark in these fertile lakes, and there is a good shot at 14- to 15-inchers. Contact: Dino Branfield, 204/362-2945, nelsonvilleoutfitters.com
10 Lake Erie, Ontario
Along with its 'walleye factory ' moniker, Lake Erie produces more perch than any other lake in North America. A hot bite exists in fall along Erie's north shore. Once fish are located, 50-fish daily bags are the norm. Manmade structures, including midlake gas wells and underground pipelines, concentrate massive schools, making the fishing reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Contact: Capt. Frank DiMarcantonio, 905/933-4834, niagarasportfishing.ca
8 Lake Gogebic, Michigan
Despite being the largest inland lake in the Upper Peninsula and producing more state angler award fish than any other fishery in the area, this trophy perch fishery somehow remains under the national radar. While not a numbers fishery, perch surpassing 2 pounds are caught each year, both during the open-water and hard-water seasons. Contact: Barry Drews, 906/842-3361, ninepinesresort.com
; Gogebic Lodge, 906/842-3321, gogebiclodge.com
5 Lake Simcoe, Ontario
Abundant freshwater shrimp and other small invertebrates allow this heavily fished lake in southern Ontario to continually produce good numbers and sizes of perch. While ice fishing generates the most angling pressure, some of the biggest fish are taken shortly after ice-out in shallow bays around Beaverton. Schools of big perch roam deeper water throughout summer. Contact: Guide Greg Klatt, 416/580-2541, profishntanglingservices.com
6 Lake St. Clair, Michigan
Lake St. Clair provides incredible summer and fall fishing for numbers of 8- to 12-inch perch. Target them just outside thick vegetation in 6 to 18 feet of water. By fishing shallower water, deep-water mortality among sorted fish isn't an issue. One hundred- to 200-fish days are common. Contact: Capt. Steve Jones, 586/463-3474, fishpredator.com
2 Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
A big-water favorite in central Minnesota, this year-round fishery puts out jumbos averaging 12 inches, if you know where to hunt them, and fish in the 15-inch range aren't out of the question. For those willing to put in the work to locate a mess of jumbos, the rewards can be huge. Contact: Guide Tony Roach, 763/226-6656, roachsguideservice.com