Great Lakes Perch
October 20, 2016
Yellow perch are on the hit list of anglers throughout the Great Lakes region. Such demand is easy to understand. Lightly battered and pan fried, their fillets are heaven on a plate. Though it may take a mess of average-size perch to make a meal, they're schooling fish. Once located, a limit can be caught in short order. In this locational guide to these vast waterways, I haven't addressed connected waters such as Lake St. Clair. That one would make a story in itself.
For the most consistent waterway to fill a 30-perch limit, look to Lake Erie. It's been said that Erie holds less than 10 percent of the total volume of water of all the Great Lakes but more than 90 percent of the fish. When it comes to perch populations, such an estimate may not be far from the truth. The commercial quota in 2014 was more than 11 million pounds. That number has been reduced about 10 percent each of the last two years, but still represents nearly 95 percent of the commercial perch harvest from all the Great Lakes.
If you're coming to Lake Erie to capitalize on this bounty of green and gold, what are the secrets to scoring big? Best to ask Kim Yonkers of Noah's Ark Charters. Yonkers serves as Captain Moses as he leads anglers to the promised land of perch from April through October on the water surrounding Lorain, Ohio. He takes only a short perch hiatus in July and August when fish scatter in deep water. Like many perch enthusiasts on Lake Erie, Yonkers' year progresses from shallow to deep water and then shallow again in fall, based on water temperatures. He begins the season in April when near-shore fish transition from the main basin into the 20-to 25-foot depth range. This shallow bite around the "dumping grounds" of Lorain continues through late May, when the spawn wraps up and water temperatures rise into the mid-50°F range.
Yonkers finds that Central Basin perch remain in depths of 20 to 30 feet until water temperatures hit 62°F. At this point he uses sonar to locate transitions of sand to hard bottom in the 45-foot range. When water temperatures climb above 70°F, big schools of perch scatter over deep water, only to return to near-shore haunts in fall as the water cools.
To catch these wandering tribes of perch, Yonkers uses a modified two-hook spreader rig with a 6-inch leader and #6 Aberdeen hook trailing a 1-ounce bell sinker to maintain bottom contact, with a second hook set above the sinker with a removable Bear Paw connector. Hooks are baited with "Moses Minnows" — dead frozen minnows marinated in a homemade potion that outproduces livebait on Yonkers' boat.
Another tip offered by Yonkers for Great Lakes perch is to look beyond traditional perch locations and trust your electronics to locate pods of fish. Once located, he often anchors to stay on the fish. The rocking of the boat, even under fairly calm conditions, imparts enough action to the baits to get the attention of perch. He also doesn't hesitate to make noise with the boat and may deliberately fire up his boat's engines when the bite slows. This added noise often concentrates fish under the boat and starts a new feeding frenzy. Perch are curious fish and a little noise often gets them biting again. If your Lake Erie plans take you outside the Lorain region, other areas with strong perch populations include Bolles Harbor, Michigan, in the Western Basin, Pelee Island in the Central Basin of Ontario, and around Niagara, New York, in the Eastern Basin.
My home waters of Lake Michigan have a history of producing goliath-sized perch, with the occasional monster stretching the tape to 17 inches. During prime times in the past, shore anglers headed to the "Horseshoe," Navy Pier, or the Planetarium along the Chicago skyline to catch limits of jumbos. Powerlines and trolley rigs were in vogue and perch could be caught 3 to 4 at a time with each pull of the rig. Even within the last decade, April and May commonly saw flotillas of hundreds of small boats from Chicago to the Wisconsin state line, with anglers catching limits of 12- to 15-inch perch. Ports from Hammond, Indiana, to Grand Haven, Michigan, and beyond hosted similar action.
Those glory days of Lake Michigan are seemingly gone. The commercial perch fishery was suspended nearly 20 years ago, except for a modest quota on Green Bay, and restrictive recreational limits have been imposed. But all is not lost. Pods of trophy fish still appear each season. When anglers find them, they keep the news quiet, and small-boat anglers spring into action before the crowds arrive.
Early-season action kicks off around Gary, Indiana, and New Buffalo, Michigan, where warmer water draws perch in. Seasoned anglers rely on locally made double-fly perch rigs available at area bait shops. The rig consists of a 1-inch fly tied with flashabou on a #4 or #6 Aberdeen hook 6 inches to 2 feet above a bell sinker on 1- to 2-inch dropper loops. The rigs are baited with emerald shiners or small golden shiners and fished tight to the bottom in 35 to 60 feet. On the southern portion of Lake Michigan, patches of clay bottom act as magnets for spawning perch and are the first spots to check once water temperatures rise into the mid-40°F range.
Once the spawn concludes and near-shore vegetation becomes established inside the harbors and breakwalls, perch move back into these areas to feed. Their food preference shifts from minnows to gobies, mussels, insect larvae, and crayfish. Productive tactics include fishing small clumps of grass with slipbobbers and worms suspended inches off the bottom. Another successful approach is to tip a jig, like Johnson's Crappie Buster Spin'R Grub, which has a Colorado blade on its underside, with a piece of soft-shell crayfish. This package plays to the curious nature of perch and their sense of smell. Softshell crayfish are a delicacy for mid-summer perch, but they're expensive and hard to find. A small piece of shrimp makes a good substitute.
When perch scatter along expansive stretches of breakwalls and weededges in summer, anglers like Capt. Ralph Steiger use a flatline trolling approach with weight-forward spinner rigs. Steiger favors custom spinner-rigs from Mik-Lurch Tackle Shop in Hammond, Indiana. He tips the rig with a piece of nightcrawler or softshell crayfish if available. The rig is trolled behind the boat at .7 to 1.1 mph with the angler holding the rod. He adds just enough weight to keep the rig occasionally ticking the top of the deep weededge.
Once a perch taps the bait, he lowers the rod, allowing the fish to eat the bait before setting the hook. Long rods with slow action are favored for this technique. If concentrations of perch are located, it pays to slowly drift the area with 1/4-ounce bladebaits like the Wolf's Big Dude and Johnson Thinfisher. These baits have small profiles that may resemble a fleeing goby or crayfish. Their flash and vibration often lure curious perch outside the weededge to strike.
When winter arrives in the Midwest, some of the best ice fishing action can be found in the northern parts of Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, and Little Bay de Noc. First ice finds fish in shallow vegetation where small teardrop jigs tipped with waxworms and Berkley Gulp! Maggots work well. Look for healthy plants in the 8- to 15-foot range with pockets and lanes in them. As winter progresses, anglers can get to offshore reefs. Here jumbos make occasional appearances and readily fall for Rapala Jigging Raps tipped with minnow heads.
Another top winter perch option is Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. Here perch relate to soft-bottom areas that provide a steady supply of wigglers and other invertebrates. Focus on near-shore areas in 15 to 30 feet, with a slightly rolling or irregular bottom. Small shanty villages become established in the waters of Ashland and Bayfield, Wisconsin, once schools are located.
An even more underutilized fishery on Lake Superior exists on the Canadian northern shoreline. The protected bays of this region provide ideal habitat. In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer notes that the isolated back bays and coves there offer some of the finest trophy perch fishing. "The coves and bays of Algoma County, Ontario, function like lakes within a lake," he says. "Once perch are located, they're usually easy to catch. Fish from 12 to 14 inches are common."
Prime perch territory on Lake Superior stretches from Nipigon to Marathon, Ontario. Here perch relate to rock humps in 15 to 30 feet and vegetation in 10 to 20 feet. To locate pods of fish during the open-water season, try drifting and fancasting with a fast-sinking spoon like the Custom Jigs and Spins Slender Spoon, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, and Acme Kastmaster. They cast easily and get to the bottom fast, where perch spend most of their time. Thread a Berkley PowerBait Atomic Pulse Tube onto the spoon's treble hook for scent and color. PowerBait stays on the hook better than livebait during repeated casts and saves rebaiting time.
Since the sheltered coves and bays along the north shore of Lake Superior function like independent lakes, the approach resembles fishing inland lakes. In shallow weedy bays, a slipfloat with a leech or piece of worm suspended near the bottom tempts perch of all sizes. Other methods include pitching small ice jigs tipped with a waxworm along the weededges or pockets. Since line-watching may be required, hi-vis monofilaments like Trilene's Pro Spec Professional Grade fluorescent yellow line excel. Unlike roaming schools of perch in the basin, those that relate to vegetation tend to be less nomadic and more consistent in their location throughout summer and fall.
For anglers seeking perch on Lake Huron, veteran guide Michael Veine of Trophy Specialists recommends Saginaw Bay year-round. While Veine focuses most of his charter trips targeting the booming walleye population there, he notes that perch continue to prosper in the bay. "Walleyes, pike, bass, and even catfish feed heavily on perch here," he says. "I do best on perch during warm years when those predators move out of the inner bay in search of cooler water and leave perch in the inner bay to dominate the catch. During summer, I focus on the western shoreline from Pine River to Pinconning. Consistent areas include Saganing Bar and Rifle Bar. They hold fish from summer through fall."
To cover water and get clients on as many fish as possible, Veine trolls crawler harnesses behind planer boards along the edge of rockbars, vegetation, and the 15- to 20-foot break along the western shoreline. Off Shore boards with "tattle tale" flags are essential. Since perch lack the weight to noticeably pull the board back when they bite, these flags tip down at the slightest resistance. The bite of even a 6-inch perch is easily detected so non-keeper fish can be quickly reeled in and released. If too many small fish are biting, move to a new area. Perch often school, running in packs of fish of similar year-classes and sizes.
The easternmost Great Lake receives limited national attention for its perch fisheries, but savvy anglers find good numbers of keepers in select areas from one end to the other. On the far west side, the marinas surrounding Hamilton Harbor routinely yield jumbo perch in all four seasons. Farther north, the mudflats of the Bay of Quinte are a focal point for mid-winter perch. The far eastern section boasts a historically strong population in areas such as Chaumont Bay, Henderson Harbor, and Sackets Harbor. The same seasonal techniques for locating fish in vegetation and rock humps on Lake Superior work here. The countless bays and sporadic weedbeds of Lake Ontario are worth exploring if you're trying to avoid the crowds and potentially be rewarded with all-day perch action.