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Ice Week 2024: Perched On the Precipice

Population explosions in the orange-finned dandies mean better ice fishing for jumbo yellow perch.

Ice Week 2024: Perched On the Precipice

Canadian pro bass angler and 2023 Bassmaster Classic champ Jeff Gustafson knows how to locate and catch big yellow perch from beneath the ice.

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Call it a rebranding; a modern look at what was once a scorned bycatch, but now headlines many a fish fry. Today, reigning Bassmaster Classic champion and diehard ice angler Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson loves his yellow perch, but this was not always so.

“I’ve ice fished since I could walk and growing up around Lake of the Woods—one of the best walleye lakes in the area—you’d never get caught dead keeping a perch,” Gustafson said. “Growing up, no one wanted perch. Rumors said they were wormy minnow stealers.”

As he grew older, Gustafson began doing his own research and learned that the said-to-be-lowly perch actually offered prime table fare. With recent years witnessing explosive perch population growth in his home waters, Gustafson has enjoyed ample opportunity to dial in his ice fishing tactics.

“On the west arm of Lake of the Woods where I live, we used to never get them,” he said. “But now we have a lot of big perch up to 10-11 inches.”

Gustafson surmises that the arrival of rusty crayfish and spiny water fleas—both invasive species—have positively impacted the perch in terms of quantity and quality. Often seeing perch spitting up crayfish pinchers and finding both invasives at the cleaning table, Gustafson said that local opinion indicates that these food sources are to Lake of the Woods what the round goby is to the St. Lawrence River.

Regardless of the backstory, Gustafson said he finds these orange-finned dandies to be quite the crowd-pleasers.

“They certainly aren’t the hardest fighters, but when you get around them, you’ll have great action,” he said. “So for people who haven’t fished a lot or if you have kids, when you get on the perch, everyone’s going to catch a bunch. They’re not very picky.

“When you find them, there’s no other fish that groups up like perch. So they’re easy to catch.”

A woman standing on the ice holding a large yellow perch.
Once a scorned bycatch, yellow perch are becoming more popular for ice fishers.

Finding the Fish

Like most fish, perch will concentrate around food sources. To locate active fish, Gustafson has a couple of proven tactics.

“Some perch will get on structure, the points, the humps, rock piles,” Gustafson said. “How I’ve found them most often is on a walleye trip and, over the years, I’ve learned that some reefs are better for walleye and some are better for perch.

“You also have mud flats—that’s where you can do good with big schools of perch.”

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Target depths vary by fishery, but Gustafson said he can reliably find perch based on clarity.

“A lot of the water I fish is pretty clear, almost lake trout water, so a lot of the fish are fairly deep—like 20-30 feet,” he said. “But on the more classic walleye water with more color, you end up getting them shallower, in that 18- to 20-foot range.”

Baits & Tackle

Two ice-fishing lures in hook keepers of G. Loomis ice-fishing rods.
Gustafson’s go-to is a 1/4-ounce Northland Buckshot Spoon. But when they play hard-to-get, he switches to a green pumpkin 1.75-inch Z-Man Tiny TicklerZ on a 1/16-ounce Northland round head jig.

Gustafson keeps his perch tactics simple. Most of the time, a strategic one-two punch gets the job done.

“When they’re active and biting, a spoon is great because you get down to them quickly,” Gustafson said. “You don’t necessarily have to go really small like you do with other panfish. You want to catch biggest fish in the school and I feel like if you use a little bigger bait, you have a slightly better chance to get the bigger fish to bite.”

Gustafson’s go-to is a 1/4-ounce Northland Buckshot Spoon, a good size in waters where he might encounter perch or walleye. If he’s straight perch fishing, he’ll go to a smaller spoon.

When the perch play hard-to-get, Gustafson switches to a green pumpkin 1.75-inch Z-Man Tiny TicklerZ on a 1/16-ounce Northland round-head jig.

“I use a little bigger rod for the spoon—a (35-inch) G. Loomis 351 IMX Ice Pro,” Gustafson said. “For plastics, I’m going light to feel the bite with a G. Loomis 311 IMX Ice Pro.

“For both, I use 5-pound Power Pro braid and a 4-pound Shimano Mastiff fluorocarbon leader.”

A man holding a large yellow perch on a frozen lake.
Keep your perch tactics simple. Most of the time, a strategic one-two punch gets the job done.

Electronic Eyes

As with his bass fishing, Gustafson harnesses modern technology to maximize his efficiency. Less time on the auger means more time fishing.

“Growing up, I used a flasher forever, but now I’m using Humminbird MEGA Live; that allows you to look over a bigger area,” Gustafson said. “That really shines on a mud flat. I used to have to drill a bunch of holes, but now I can drill one hole and look 100 feet in every direction.

“When I get on a school of perch, it’s fun to put an Aqua Vu down and look at the fish.” 

Lastly, Gustafson offers this advice for frying yellow perch: Make the batter from flour, egg, and cornflake crumbs and cook in butter. If he’s doing a shore lunch, he’ll cook over a campfire so everyone can warm their hands.

For the hardcore “let’s keep fishing” crowd, a propane cooker allows him to keep the party rocking while serving a fresh-from-the-ice meal.




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