October 27, 2023
I was distracted when I set the hook. It was a beautiful spring day of bass fishing near the shore of western Lake Ontario. I was admiring the stonework of Old Fort Niagara instead of paying attention to my drop shot bouncing off the bottom. Still, I could feel a solid fish when it thumped the bait.
It wasn't a big fish—certainly not the 5-pound smallmouths we'd been catching that week. I expected a small walleye, but a few minutes later a fat yellow perch pushing 12 inches in length was flopping alongside the boat, fooled by the soft plastic I'd been tossing.
"Decent perch," Joe Fonzi said, owner of Thumbs Up Guide Service in western New York.
Decent? In most places where yellow perch are found a foot-long slabber is photo-worthy. I've seen mounts of yellow perch that weren't much bigger than the one I shook off that May day. Curious, I later asked Fonzi about the perch-fishing opportunities found on Lake Ontario.
"Put it this way," he said, "At the right time of year, on a good day, you can fill a 5-gallon pail with just 35 or 40 perch. I don't care where you are, that's a good mess of jumbo perch."
From Sackets Harbor in the east to the mouth of the Niagara River in the west, the inlets, bays, and river deltas of Lake Ontario offer some of the finest yellow perch fishing in the country. In the autumn—when the perch migrate to shallow and cooler water to feed for the approaching cold—and during a limited ice-fishing window in the winter, Lake Ontario anglers have plenty of opportunity to catch plenty of Lake Ontario's jumbo perch.
Good And Plenty
With unwavering year-over-year consistency, yellow perch sit atop the list of the most caught fish species in Lake Ontario. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation's annual status reports offer a glimpse into the true size of Ontario’s perch. A 2020 report of gill netting efforts showed yellow perch lengths ranged between 5.7 inches and 12.3 inches, with the average fish coming in slightly over 8 inches. On average, about 18 percent of perch netted by DEC exceeded 9 inches in length with the largest fish weighing in close to a pound.
Those netted fish were captured and measured by DEC crews in the summer. By the time fall rolls around the perch are busy bulking up in anticipation of the cold months ahead and are chunkier than in the summer. And as the autumn waters cool, the perch fishing heats up. Seasoned Lake Ontario anglers say the yellow perch are moving into the shallow bays and inlets in pursuit of emerald shiners and young round gobies found in the rocky bottoms of the bays.
The feeding frenzy continues throughout the winter—as does open-water fishing for them when and where conditions allow. And when the weather turns North Country frigid, a few spots on Lake Ontario will have enough ice for ice fishing. Chief among them is the Chaumont-Three Mile Bay area near Watertown, NY.
"This is the coldest part of the lake, and the only real spot to count on getting safe ice," Louis Pagnotti said, who runs Chaumont Masters guide service and is on the ice almost every day of the winter season. "We can reasonably expect to have good ice from January 1 until late February or early March."
Chaumont Masters is a unique fishing enterprise on the big lake. Pagnotti has heated shanties on the bay, supplied with bait and equipped with Garmin LiveScopes to ensure there's never a dull moment on the ice. Walleye are top targets, but plenty of yellow perch are iced as well. Pagnotti also offers lodging, with an inn on the bay and a motel in nearby Henderson, NY.
He said hardwater anglers on Chaumont Bay can expect to catch a lot of yellow perch when conditions are right.
"I like to say Chaumont is known for its quality walleye and quantity perch," he said. "If you can fill a 5-gallon pail, that's a good day."
Tips And Techniques
One of the great things about yellow perch fishing is that it doesn't require the latest and greatest technologically advanced equipment.
In November, having a boat can be critical to success. "Perch tend to school up by size, so you might be getting into a mess of 8-inch fish, but if you can move to a place and find schools of 10 or even 12-inchers it becomes a whole different game," Fonzi said.
Ideally, you'll be fishing in depths less than 15 feet, so the key is finding bottom.
Drop-shot fishing is the technique of choice in the autumn. "Use the lightest sinker you can to get to the bottom and use two hooks," Fonzi continued. "My first hook is tied only a couple inches above the sinker because I'm looking for those fish that have their noses right down on the bottom and their tails are sticking up. My second hook is 14 to 18 inches above that. The fish are all oriented toward the bottom, nothing is suspended."
Live bait, like small emerald shiners, are deadly year-round. If you're exploring new water, take some time to find the bait and tackle shop closest to where you're fishing before you head out and pester them for info. At Chaumont Bay, a visit to Chaumont Hardware is the can't-miss stop for ice anglers. Not only is the store a bait and tackle shop, but it's also regularly abuzz with information on ice conditions, and even buys yellow perch from anglers who want to sell their catch.
Outside of using live bait, Pagnotti recommends jigging with an Acme Kastmaster.
"When there's a school of perch under the ice below you, it's key that somebody always has a bait in the water," Pagnotti said. "When everything is right, you can catch yellow perch here as fast as you can pull them up."
Ice Life Info
Considering an ice-fishing trip to Chaumont Bay in eastern Lake Ontario? Lodging, shanty rentals, and guiding can all be provided by Louis Pagnotti at Chaumont Masters. See Chaumont Masters or call (570) 510-0911 for details.
AJ Berry of AJ's Anglers Edge Guide Service also conducts ice-fishing trips for perch on Chaumont Bay. Reach AJ at (315) 777-5480.
Chaumont Hardware at (315) 649-2959 is a valuable resource as well. Any trip onto the ice at Chaumont Bay should start here. The store's Facebook page is also a wealth of information.
You can reach Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Guide Service at (716) 998-8373.