In a crowded cocktail party, a familiar man pulls you aside and says, "Big perch are making a comeback." You laugh.
No, really. They are. From the East though the Big Lakes, to the mesotrophic lakes of the upper Midwest, jumbos are bouncing back in big numbers. Old, familiar favorites are back, but new waters are producing heavies, too—shedding light, once again, on how jumbo perch react in different environments, and why they bite certain baits better than others. Perch locations in winter rely on dominant forage patterns, providing clues about what to use. And ice fishing perch is arguably a top favorite
The established maestro of ice fishing, Dave Genz, has traveled far and wide in recent years, stalking the elusive porcine percid. Road dust on Genz is thicker than most folks' britches. "Relatively new reservoirs in the East used for producing power are called 'setbacks,'" he said. "We've been catching nice perch in those for the first time. But we have to use little panfish jigs, like size #10 and smaller, so I assume they're feeding on invertebrates."
Genz reports that perch over 12 to 15 inches are coming easier than anyone can remember in the Finger Lakes of New York. "Perch have bright red fins there," he said, "so we assume they're feeding on bloodworms living in the sediment. Plastics are important there because they imitate bloodworms so well. Maki Plastics, Berkley, and Northland make small, bright-red worms, and all of them are extremely popular for perch in Connecticut and New York. I still like to add a maggot or two to the hook for natural flavor enhancement, but small plastic worms have special powers in those lakes with lots of bloodworms. I typically fish smaller jigs, like the smallest Lindy Fat Boy with pieces of those worms."
Ever notice how some lakes demand spoons with minnow parts and other lakes force us to use jigs with maggots? (Shhh. Two words: Freshwater shrimp.)
"The difference is freshwater shrimp," Genz says. "Where you have lots, we fish smaller baits. Where perch feed on insect larvae, small baits also work better than minnows and spoons. But they do feed on themselves a lot in Mille Lacs and Leech Lake," he laughs. "They feed on more minnows in those big meso lakes, like they do in the Great Lakes. They want meat. In those fisheries, spoons work better.
"But there are lots of smaller lakes that have jumbo perch again," he says. "They don't school by size as much in those small lakes. The 10-inchers are mixed in with the 15-inchers. You can fish selectively for larger perch in small lakes without baiting hooks. A spoon with a flicker and no bait is consistently effective. Bigger fish come in on it better and smaller ones won't mess with you as much."
Small lakes with a lot of reedbeds tend to have more jumbo perch, according to Genz. "Those lakes offer better spawning habitat, certainly, but it has to be a food thing. Something's making them grow faster in lakes with reeds." I waited for the pearl to drop. Silence. "Don't ask me why," he panned. "Probably something big, like dragonfly larvae. Dragonflies use reeds to drop eggs. They need reeds as much as the perch do. Big perch also tend to be found in shallow lakes with a lot of flats, like those prairie lakes and ponds in South Dakota."
Shrimp, as advertised, are the cat's meow. I often find them at the pet store. Turtle chow. Spectacular baits on those invertebrate lakes. If you can't find freshwater shrimp, Genz imitates them with small jigs and spikes. "Using spikes on a horizontal bait like the Lindy Genz Worm works really well," he says. "Using maggots works just as well in most cases. I put several baits on the hook—four or five—to establish a critical cadence and to get the jig to kick out. To get up and down quick at 10 feet, you need to use at least a size #10 jig. A size #8 is better for getting down to perch holding deeper than 12 feet. The Genz Worm has been my go-to bait for deep perch for years, because it's like putting the sinker on the hook. You still have a small package but with added weight, so you're fishing more direct, with less tangles. It's the optimum deep perch jig."
Three things are certain. (1) Perch feeding on minnows are more likely to use structure like humps and reefs, or cover like wood and weeds, where they can use their camouflage to find minnows. (2)
Perch feeding on invertebrates are more likely to use flats and transitions between soft and hard bottoms, where a varietyof invertebrates are concentrated in a smaller area. (3) In either case, perch use the most abundant source of food available but that doesn't preclude the minnow eaters from rooting out bugs now and then, or the insect eaters from craving a little meat. In most cases, perch want to be where all those options are on the table.
Location always has something to do with biodiversity. The more diverse an area is, the bigger the variety of forage options becomes. Humps or reefs with attenuating weeds adjacent to big mid-depth (12 to 18 feet) to deep (20 to 30 feet) flats sporting various substrates tend to comprise the rain forest for those porcine percids.
Wherever he finds lakes with all sizes of perch, Genz says bigger baits are the answer. "But when you're on a school of big fish on a lot of lakes, you have to scale back," he says. "Back to those invertebrates again. If that's their main source of food, you're better off imitating insect larvae by using size #12 jigs tipped with maggots."
He says that presentation depends on location. In other wrds, what area or what kind of lake are you talking about? "Devils Lake is famous for jumbo perch, and smaller baits produce better," he says. "A small Hali Spoon with a chain and a small, baited hook, seems to be the key bait because Devils Lake is full of freshwater shrimp.
"On Mille Lacs, Winnibigoshish, or Leech Lake, spoons tipped with a minnowhead excel. And the best spoons are lures that swim off to the side, like the Lindy Rattl' N Flyer. When it glides to the side, it allows you to fish away from the hole and 'poof' the bottom, making clouds of sediment rise 6 feet away from straight down. I tighten up and give it a twitch at that point, which makes the Flyer inch along bottom a little at a time, leaving a trail of puffy clouds of sediment leading to your hole. I let it slip along a couple inches and dump it back to bottom, pausing to let the sediment rise. Sometimes that attracts perch faster than the flash of the spoon itself."
Perch, I thought while listening to Genz, are like people in that respect. Wherever they see an opportunity to let somebody else do the work while they benefit, they're all in. A puff of sediment probably suggests that other fish are working the bottom there and probably finding food.
"Cadence is important with perch," he offers. "Once I pick a spoon up off bottom, I like to start shaking it, finding the motion that feels right to the fish. They tell me by how they respond to it on my Vexilar screen. With that shaky motion I might add a fast lift. It jumps up and flutters down.
"Cadence is the key. The cadence used when shaking that bait, and the cadence used to determine how often and how fast to jump the spoon makes all the difference. Find the cadence. When you get a lure going off to the side, people want to see it again. It's like, 'Oh, no. Can't see it.' So they lift the rod too soon. Better to leave it out of sight for a while, creating that ring of sediment. Let it fall at the farthest outward part of the sweep and you can create that trail leading back to the center of the hole by inching it along bottom. It may be out of sight, but that's alright." (I suddenly wondered if I was interviewing Mohammad Ali.) "It gives you a chance to observe what cadence the fish are responding to. That constant rhythmic motion—that's cadence. Pay attention to it.
"I just read an old article about sightfishing and how pectoral fins can be a key to the fish's mood. When perch fin in reverse there's something wrong with your presentation. If the fins are moving forward, keep doing what you're doing. But the fins start moving before the fish does, giving you time to change up what you're doing before they back off entirely."
Which lures, I asked, are the most universal for perch across the wide gulf of his travels. "The Lindy Frosty is a great one," he said. "The Custom Jigs & Spins Demon, the Northland Forage Minnow, the Lindy Fat Boy—they all have their moments. But they don't all glide off to the side, like the Rattl' N Flyer, and the Bay de Noc Do Jigger. And small Jigging Rapalas. Don't forget to put a swivel on the line a couple feet above most swimming lures. It doesn't hurt to have a swivel, but I use the Flyer without one. The fact that the line isn't getting twisted tells me it's gliding and not spinning, and a swivel reduces the distance the lure glides, so I only use it if I need it.
"A sunny day is still better than a cloudy day," he says. "High pressure, lots of sun—perch bite better, especially in deep water. Anything over 30 feet is deep for perch in most environments, whereas 12 to 15 feet would be shallow. We're getting more information with our cell phones, so we're correlating a lot more with weather and finding out that when the deep lakes aren't going, the shallow ones are, and vice-versa."
By the time we rolled off that subject, I could sense he was fixin' to strap on his travellin' boots again: "I want to see what the perch bite is like in Montana, Wyoming, and other points West this year. I know most fishermen are after trout most of the time and I just want to see for myself what the perch bite can be like. At 6,000 feet in the Black Hills we found 10-inch perch in a reservoir last year, so that piqued my curiosity."
Leaving for Montana soon. Gonna be a yellow perch tycoon.
*Matt Straw is a former In-Fisherman staff member now working as an In-Fisherman Field Editor and freelance author. He's an exceptional multispecies angler, besides being a fine writer and longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.
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