September 14, 2012
By Jeff Simpson
Finding perch and which lures and baits trigger them is the driving force for many winter anglers—that and the two tasty fillets per fish. Aggressive perch are easy. But perch aren't always so starved. Sometimes they watch lures from a distance. Other times they nose within inches to decide if your offering's worth eating.
To catch perch you must investigate potential locations and adapt your approach to prevalent perch behavior. That may vary hour to hour, day to day, month to month, lake to lake, fish to fish. Food; oxygen level; security; and whether it's early, mid, or late winter are variables that affect perch behavior.
Depending on lake type, perch can be both shallow and deep. In deeper lakes, schools of hundreds of perch are common. Indeed, in the Great Lakes, schools may number in the thousands. In small, shallow, fertile lakes, they may, on the other hand, roam in small packs (ten or fewer). Yet if populations are high, schools may also number in the hundreds.
Shallow Tendencies and Tactics
Many different patterns can exist at the same time in the same body of water. Near weedlines, flooded brush, and timber, perch often congregate to feed on small aquatic life—plankton, nymphs, minnows, freshwater shrimp, blood worms, and other aquatics. Hard bottoms, such as rock, gravel, or sand attract freshwater shrimp (scuds) and minnows that attract perch. Mudflats often support mayfly larva or other insect life. Determine perch location, behavior (aggressive, neutral, or negative), school size, and how far they roam to decide the best tactics and presentations.
Several small schools (say 2 to 10 fish per pod) may, for example, roam a large flat. Using multiple lines and waiting for perch to come to you may be more productive than trying to catch up with small pods of roaming fish. Jigging a flash lure with one line and suspending livebait below a deadstick or under a float can be productive. Even though perch may not hit the flash lure once they get close, they may go for the nearby livebait. Setting multiple baits in close proximity also may give fish the sense that ample feeding opportunities exists, holding perch in the area longer.
Using tip-ups is a proactive way to track roaming perch. Use tip-ups primarily to locate perch rather than to catch them. Over a large shallow flat, for example, drill multiple holes so you can spread tip-ups out to cover a large area. Within a few feet of the tip-up, drill an extra hole, or two. When a flag goes, hustle over quickly and quietly to catch a few perch by jigging before the school moves.
Use 4- to 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader from the tip-up line. A small to medium minnow adds action. Some tip-ups (like HT's Windlass tip-up) use the wind to move baits. Others like Maverick Manufacturing's Finicky's Fish Factory have a battery-operated jigger.
I often use a lightweight willowspoon to attract perch to a tip-up. A minnow adds action to the willowspoon. Modify a willowleaf lure, like Bait Rigs Panfish Willospoon by removing the hook; or drill a second hole in a willowblade, add split-rings, and tie on a 2- to 3-inch mono dropline.
One Bite At A Time
Managing multiple floats, deadstick lines, and tip-ups is time consuming, especially on cold, windy days. Proficient anglers catch perch as quickly as possible. If perch are biting quickly concentrate on rod-and-reel presentations. Down with the lure, up with a fish. Eat or release? Got bait? Yup. Down with the lure, up with a fish. That's production. Little time wasted scurrying from hole to hole rebaiting, rigging, and setting lines. The longer you can keep perch interested, the more fish you'll likely catch.
Swimming lures are particularly good in clear water where fish can spot a lure from a distance. The lures sink fast and hook well. Perch on a minnow diet generally hit these lures with vigor. The Jigging Rapala (#3 and #5), Nils Master Jigger (#1 and #2), Nils Master Baby Jigging Shad, and Bad Dogs Humpback are swimming options. Most perch eat the bait—a minnow head, maggot, larva, or perch eye—dangling on the lower treble of the lure.
In dark water (or when perch are scattered in clear water) flash lures work well. The bigger the lure, the more flash and vibration. Most flash lures for perch weigh 1/8 to 1/4 ounce. Phosphorescent or metallic lures, like gold-silver, green, and orange attract perch.
Straight spoons, like the Acme Kastmaster or Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple, create plenty of flash but offer less action than bent or curved lures (super-action). Bent lures, like the Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow or curved lures like Acme's Sidewinder offer vibration when ripped. They also flash on the fall.
If perch seem reluctant to take the bait dangling on the treble of your flash lure, try a search lure. Take a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce straight lure like a Kastmaster and replace the treble hook with a 2 1/2-inch portion of 4-pound mono and a 1/32- or 1/64-ounce jig like the Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee, the Red Neck Tech Metallic Gold Hornet, or a #8 to #12 hook tipped with a small minnow head, maggot, or grub. Reluctant perch more likely strike bait dangling 2 to 3 inches below a flash lure.
Custom Jigs & Spins Slip Dropper is an adjustable search lure. Plastic sleeves at the top and bottom of the spoon allow you to change the amount of line dangling below the spoon.
Lure movement attracts fish, but perch rarely hit a moving lure. Sometimes they shy away from lots of flash and vibration; other times, vibration and flash triggers aggressive behavior. Use the biggest lure you can get away with to attract perch, then see how they react.
Experiment to see what triggers strikes. Perch often are caught close to the bottom. If they seem reluctant to rise up to investigate your lure, drop it to the bottom and let it sit momentarily before slowly lifting and working the lure a few inches from bottom. Long pauses are sometimes a key.
On the other hand, jigging as high as 2 or 3 feet from the bottom often attracts fish from a distance. Active fish may rise 5 feet (or higher) to investigate or strike a lure. Jigging higher than the main pod of perch allows for hooking and reeling a fish without pulling it through the main pod, which may spook the school.
Sighting Light-Biting Perch
Underwater cameras take much of the guesswork out of what's down there. Any fish around? Are they the fish you're after? Bottom content and specific forage may lend clues to why perch are favoring certain spots. You also can observe perch behavior and how they react to the moves you give your lures.
An underwater camera also allows you to time the hookset the exact moment you see a fish inhale the lure on the viewing screen. Underwater cameras excel in clear water. They take time to set up, however, so they're not the best option when you're moving from hole to hole, searching for active fish.
Using your own eyes to view fish under your hole in the shallows is a sight-fishing option. Most winters, the water's clear enough to see bottom in the shallows. Sight fishing allows you to observe how fish react to your lure. Bigger holes (8 to 10 inches) are better for viewing, allowing you to see a larger area and which direction the perch are coming from. Sight fishing is easier from inside a shack.
At times, fussy perch often can be tempted with jigs tipped with livebait. The weight of the jig should match the size of the bait and the depth fished. Most shallow situations call for jigs from 1/64 to 1/250 ounce. Plastic baits, like Custom Jigs & Spins Ratso or Shrimpo, are another option. The long, thin tails taper to a needle-thin tip that quivers, much like a freshwater shrimp.
Tip jigs with minnows, minnow heads, perch eyes, maggots, or grubs. Filing off most of the barb on your hooks reduces tearing up small bait, like maggots or shrimp, and hook penetration is easier on light line.
Tendencies and Tactics In Deep Water
Perch rarely stage on deep drop-offs, preferring to gather on deep flats where hard bottom meets softer bottom. Deeper lakes usually offer structural elements like points and humps sticking into deep basins. Perch also congregate near primary structure and transition breaks, like where sand meets mud. Subtle rises in a flat—a foot or so higher than the rest of the bottom—can be enough of a transition to attract perch.
Swimming lures work well in deep water. The heavier design of most swimming lures allows for getting down quickly, and the weight helps stay in contact with the lure to detect strikes.
I contend, too, that more moves can be made with swimming lures than with flash lures. Bouncing your rod tip up and down about 1/2 inch or so makes the lure rock back and forth, which resembles a minnow ready to flee. Or try bouncing the lure on the bottom to stir up bottom sediment. Sometimes just holding the lures as motionless as possible triggers a strike.
Other times perch require fineness tactics. Try the search lure option mentioned before. Tip a 1/64-ounce jig with several maggots and fish it deep on a light-action rod spooled with 4-pound line. A spring bobber helps to detect the slightest pick-ups.
If you see fish, but they won't hit, try slowly and steadily lifting your lure as far up as the fish will follow. The slow but steady moving lure represents fleeing forage. Perch either must eat or lose lunch. No takers? Drop the lure to puff the bottom, then wait a moment before slowly lifting off the bottom.
Hole Lot A Hoppin'
Drill lots of holes and move from hole to hole until you start catching fish. If the action slows, move again until you're on fish. This works when perch are scattered in groups of two, three, four, or ten, or when perch sense danger when schoolmates disappear after tasting your lure.
Sonar suggests whether or not fish are in an area. You may spot fish as soon as you put the transducer down the hole, or soon after you lower a lure. Sometimes it takes several minutes before fish appear. Predetermine the time you plan on fishing each hole (1 to 5 minutes, 10 to 50 jigging moves) before moving. Once you get a feel for the action, you can modify the time you give each hole.
In each new area, I drop my bait down, lift it 6 to 12 inches so I can see it clearly on my sonar, then lift-fall aggressively 4 to 5 times to see if I can encourage something to come in. I pause to give the fish time to react.
Perch are curious and unpredictable. Sometimes cutting a hole with an auger attracts them. Other times, walking across the ice spooks them. Two people jigging close together with flash lures may be too much action; other times, the more flash and action, the more perch you catch. So experiment. The objective is to fool one perch at a time—over and over again.