The perch's moody and migratory nature, population swings, and behavioral evolution in response to an ever-changing environment make tracking down true jumbos one of panfishing's greatest challenges. Many anglers limit their perch seeking missions to mid- to late winter.
Perch purists know, however, that ample opportunities to make great catches exist from spring through fall as well. Yellow perch are widespread in North America and flourish in everything from small ponds and natural lakes to rivers, swamps, and reservoirs. Not all perch fisheries are created equal, however. Many waters hold swarms of finger-length ringed hornets, producing few pot-bellied perch more than 10 inches in length, which makes pinpointing prime destinations the first step toward scoring world-class catches.
Several factors affect a fishery's ability to produce generous numbers of giant perch. Key players typically include predators, fishing pressure, year-class strength, forage type and abundance, and more. As In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer points out, the arrival of non-native species can also alter a lake's dynamics.
The Flea Circus
"Just as I was retiring as district manager from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Kenora, invasive spiny water fleas were starting to boom in Lake of the Woods," Pyzer says. "Today, they've gained a massive toe-hold, to the detriment of local zooplankton, phytoplankton, and certain species of fish." Pyzer explains that the fleas' sharp spines and hooks render them inedible to most small fish, including young-of-year gamefish. "They can stick in fish's throats and choke them," he says. "Bottom line, for a number of interrelated reasons, spiny water fleas have significantly impacted the lake's yellow perch population."
While Pyzer believes these and other invaders are bad news, capable of tipping a lake's food chain on its ear, he concedes that, at present, the flea infestation is a boon for savvy jumbo hunters. "Numbers of perch have been drastically reduced, but size of the fish has ballooned," he says. "Seems once the perch get big enough, they turn the table on the fleas and eat them. As a result, Lake of the Woods has been transformed from a 'numbers' perch fishery to one of the finest trophy perch fisheries anywhere.
"Nowadays, it's not uncommon to get into schools of perch that are as big as almost anywhere else on the continent," he continues. "I'm talking about schools of 13-, 14-, and 15-inch fish with huge bodies and humpbacked heads. And it's not uncommon to catch 40, 50, or more perch once you find the schools."
Given the lake's immense proportions—1 million acres, 14,000 islands, and 64,000 miles of shoreline—finding perch can be challenging. Pyzer simplifies the search by focusing on fleas. "The key is locating a ball of suspended water fleas—which looks like a bait cloud on sonar—and then fishing around it," he says. "The closer a ball of fleas is to the bottom, the better the perch fishing."
Pyzer notes that fleas have not triggered any changes in his normal perch presentations. "I think it's a case of perch eating the most plentiful and abundant forage versus the most preferred," he says, "like eating hot dogs but jumping at the chance for a New York strip steak. Small jigs tipped with a variety of softbaits are great. So are drop-shot rigs when fish are close to the bottom. If I have the grandkids in the boat, nothing beats a small, lively minnow."
The Simcoe Scene
Southern Ontario's massive Lake Simcoe is a perennial perch powerhouse, producing both quality and quantity at a pace few fisheries can match. Longtime In-Fisherman confidante Wil Wegman says Simcoe is as good as ever. But he notes that major changes have forced anglers to adapt, offering lessons that are relevant on other fisheries as well.
"Despite great changes within Simcoe's ecosystem, this 'mini-Lake Erie' continues to rival her big sister as one of the finest yellow perch fisheries anywhere," says Wegman, who hails from Bradford on the lake's south end. A well-known author, guide, and conservationist, Wegman has also claimed top honors in major local tournaments including the popular Perchin' for MS event and the Perch Attack.
He says spring and early summer remain great times to fish the lake. "Anglers continue to catch numbers of perch to fill their legal 50-daily, 100-possession limits if they choose," he says. "And they can do so with fish in the 11- to 13-inch range, with a shot at 14- to 15-inchers. Fortunately, many anglers realize that these legal limits are far above what they should actually harvest — especially in terms of perch over the 12-inch mark."
Wegman notes that during the last four to five years, three factors have affected yellow perch behavior in Simcoe. They include a shift from predominantly zebra mussels to quagga mussels, an explosion in round goby numbers, and a resurgence in the lake's cisco population.
"Quaggas are a bit larger than zebra mussels, so they filter more water and inhabit deeper water as well as near shore sections—making them far more plentiful throughout the lake," he says. "Round gobies have become so abundant, few predatory fish fail to capitalize on these bottom-dwelling baitfish, including perch. And cisco, or lake herring, rebounded from the brink of extinction to the point the season was reopened to anglers in 2015. Young ciscoes, which suspend almost anywhere in the water column, are so abundant and widespread they, too, have become a significant food choice for opportunistic perch."
As a result, anglers must be ready to fish a variety of techniques to consistently catch spring and early-summer jumbos, Wegman says. "Be prepared to bounce jigs on bottom and drop-shot a variety of minnow- and goby-imitating plastics. Jerkbaits like the #8 Rapala X-Rap Deep help me find schools of perch in late spring and summer, and #5 Rapala CountDowns or even a #10 X-Rap for larger aggressive fish, shine when perch are shallow. For anglers who prefer livebait, a standard pickerel rig works, too."
Wegman says locating pods of portly perch often entails some scouting with jerkbaits — either casting to shallow to emerging vegetation or trolling along breaks adjacent to weededges. When a perch takes the lure, he drops a marker buoy, then uses jigs and drop-shot rigs to catch as many perch as possible from the spot before moving on. If you're planning a road trip to Simcoe, Wegman doesn't guide much anymore, but he recommends local ace Gerry Heels for a crash course on locating Simcoe's jumbos. "One final tip," he adds. "If you want jumbos, force yourself to abandon schools of 5- to 7-inch fish when you run across them, and stay on the hunt for giants."
Michigan Perch Prospects
Perch may not be the rocket scientists of the underwater world, but matching tactics to conditions can still mean the difference between 5 fish and 50. Tailoring presentations to individual systems can also be important. "Many anglers understand that perch have different moods and activity levels," says lifelong perch fan, veteran guide, and tournament ace Mark Martin. "Due to a lake's predominant forage and other factors, however, certain systems require serious finesse, while others allow more aggressive approaches."
Martin highlights Upper Michigan's Lake Gogebic as a case for finesse. "Gogebic has gotten beat up a little in the last few years but still produces giant perch and is a great destination," he says. "After the spawn, many fish move out to main-lake mudflats and rock-mud transitions, where they root out mayfly larvae and other insects. You might get a few backtrolling 1/8-ounce jigs or trolling 'crawler harnesses and crankbaits, but you get more jumbos vertically fishing tiny jigs."
A mayfly larva, commonly called a wiggler, is one of his favorite baits, impaled on a 1/16-ounce jig or #6 gold Aberdeen hook. Waxworms and panfish leeches also take fish. "After marking fish on sonar, anchor and slowly raise and lower your bait just off bottom. Or let the jig rest on bottom and gently lift it up a few inches," he says. "Be forewarned, bites are incredibly light. They barely lip the bait. Many locals use ice fishing rods, but I rig a titanium spring bobber on a light spinning outfit. It's entirely different than how you fish lakes where perch prefer snap-jigging and other aggressive tactics."
One of Martin's favorite places to pursue trophy perch with attitude is the St. Marys River system, which separates northern Michigan from Ontario. "Most anglers focus on walleyes and other species, but the Soo produces giant perch just like Gogebic—except these fish have far more aggressive attitudes," he says. "Early spring is great for slipbobbering jigs tipped with wigglers or small minnows around shallow pencil reeds in bays off the main channel. Later, casting and trolling come into play in stained shallow bays and Lake George. I like jigs tipped with minnows or softbaits, Beetle Spins, and small jerkbaits like a #6 Rapala Husky Jerk."
Guide Scott Seibert chases trophy perch year-round across the Midwest. After ice-out, he plies the same shallow areas that held big perch in late winter. "Shallow bays with emerging vegetation in less than 10 feet of water are prime," he says.
His go-to tactics include skull-hooking a fathead minnow on a small tungsten jighead, such as Clam's 1/16-ounce Drop Jig XL. Using his Minn Kota trolling motor's Spot-Lock function to hold the boat in place, he vertically works the jig on and off bottom. "Kick up sediment by bouncing bottom, then lift the jig above the weedtops and subtly bob it up and down," he advises.
Last spring, Seibert and his partner in panfishing, Shelly Holland, experimented with Clam's new 1/8-ounce XXL Drop Jig, which they report works well for such maneuvers.
"Jumbos loved it," he says, noting that he works a variety of tippings into his arsenal. "Maki Plastics' new 1¼-inch, bloodworm-imitating Bloodi softbait is hot," he says. "I also like the feathered trebles on Clam's JM Rattlin' Blade Spoon and Leech Flutter Spoon, which trigger bites even if your bait (typically a minnow head) comes unbuttoned."
Search And Enjoy
Guide Jason Mitchell says one of the hottest things happening in his early-summer perch program is a search pattern that combines tiny spinners with high-tech boat positioning aids. "It's a deadly one-two punch," he says. "I crawl along at 1 to 1.5 mph with a flicker blade rig, which includes a half crawler threaded onto a small Aberdeen hook. When I catch a perch or start getting bites, I set a waypoint and use Spot-Lock to hover over the fish while I switch to vertical mode with a small tungsten jig or chain spoons like Clam's Speed Spoon, a Hali, or a Pilki. Don't try to fish with them unless you can stay vertical. If you can't, stick with the small spinner."
To find trophy perch earlier in the season, follow the lead of North Woods Guide Jeff Sundin and sight-fish your way to success. "In clear water, big perch stand out like sore thumbs," he says. Polarized sunglasses and an electric trolling motor are keys to cruising weedy bays and flowages looking for perch. When he spots fish, Sundin deploys a slipfloat rig. "A live minnow on a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce ballhead jig or Lindy Frostee under a small Thill Wobble Bobber is hard to beat," he says.
*Dan Johnson, Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contacts: Gerry Heels, 705/791-8080; Mark Martin, markmartins.net; Scott Seibert, 612/759-0845; Wil Wegman, wilwegman.com; Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375.