April 15, 2014
Imagine perch fishing as a spiritual quest. Would it involve ritual fires climbing into a black sky, and men dancing around it in a ring? Stamping around with rattle beads on sticks, chanting things like, "Fish eyes, spoons, redworms, lead. Give us perch and no sheepshead." Would they have a craven image, swimming in place, its huge, implacable eyes gleaming darkly, presumably searching for plankton the size of cows?
Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters, laughed. "Maybe not that bad, but perch, around here, is religion," he said. "People put away walleye gear when jumbos show up." Lewis should know. His shop near Cleveland sells more bait to perch fishermen than most others combined. "Last year was excellent for perch on Lake Erie, while 2011 was poor. They say the population goes up and down, but it's relatively stable. What matters is if you can get out on the water. In 2011 there were a lot of days where we were winded out. Size remains stable, with lots of year-classes available right now, and lots of 12-inchers being caught."
Perch are never forgotten on the Great Lakes. Elsewhere, it's the rare dog that hunts perch in spring and early summer. I called people across the country to ask, and few guides or known perch-heads admitted to fishing for perch during spring. But those who did said spring was, by far, the best time to do it.
Tony Roach, one of the nation's premier perch-and-walleye guides, claims spring through early summer is a bonanza for perch. "Never anybody else chasing them," he said. "Perch are the most underfished panfish that time of year and, that's the least pressure perch get all season long. In spring, people forget about them."
For one thing, perch don't seem to behave like perch. "I use lures," Roach said. "Suspend a livebait under a float and you get at least 5 times fewer strikes. I sometimes have clients that don't let the lure hit bottom, which is critical, so I rig up floats. Everybody else is getting bit, hooking up on every cast, with no livebait. On the floats, they're using live minnows or leeches. Floats with bait don't work as well. It's intriguing why they don't favor live minnows."
He uses lures like Rapala Jigging Raps and jigs with spinner blades, like the Northland Crappie Thumper. "Perch begin spawning just before the water hits 50°F," he said. "I fish bigger lakes, like Leech, Winnibigoshish, and Mille Lacs, where you find perch along sparse weeds. They don't like thick vegetation, preferring transitions to hard bottom or sand where weeds are thin. Those areas allow you to fish fast.
"I can generally find perch while fishing for smallmouths early in the season. They peck at smallmouth lures, or you see them following smallmouths out of the weeds. I've found my best perch areas in spring by fishing fast for bass. Perch are concentrated until the water temperature climbs above 55°F, so you find big groups right after ice-out. On Leech, where you have so many weedy areas, it's hard to determine where to start, so I fish faster and harder. When you see a few perch, switch gears and you often find big schools of jumbos. That's fun — because nobody's after them."
At 55°F to 60°F, perch start filtering out into the main basin of these large lakes. "Finding them at that point is like finding a needle in a haystack," Roach said. "The game becomes grid creation with sonar, using GPS to cover areas thoroughly, looking quickly for pods of perch in basin areas. I spend a lot of time hunting for perch that way through early summer."
One of the quickest indicators is a bug hatch. "You can almost always find them where mayflies are hatching," he said. "That's one thing to look for because the spots themselves don't stand out. The spots aren't hard structure — more like a lack of structure. Perch might be on transitions right at the base of the structure. In the 15- to 25-foot basin flats, I look for the fastest hard-to-soft transitions in the shortest distance. Often there's no depth change. Abrupt transitions are more important than depth changes."
On sonar, active pods of perch often look like Christmas trees growing off the bottom — the signal with a wide base and a skinny top. When Roach spots a pod, he stops the boat, begins to back up, and pitches a Jigging Rap or Northland Puppet Minnow about 10 to 15 feet behind the transom. "I use 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs to get down that deep," he said. "In depths over 20 feet, I use 1/4- to 3/4-ounce Jigging Raps and Puppet Minnows.
Lindy Dancin' Crappie Jig
"After spotting a pod, I pitch the lure just beyond the school and let it swing to them from the side. They get spooky since they're baitfish as much as predators. Don't drop it on their heads, but rather let it swing toward them, especially with lures this big. They hit these big lures, but you have to sidle up to them."
If a more entertaining way to catch perch was ever devised, I have yet to experience it. Fishing for perch with Roach is an experience. No messing with bait — and few long, boring, fishless interludes. Just hunt-and-catch.
"It's important to let it hit bottom," he added. "Let the lure smash into the bottom and raise a cloud of sediment. I lift it quickly after it hits, but not aggressively like I do for walleyes. I pop it up a couple feet and let it fall. The next time it lands, I sometimes let it rest momentarily. Walleyes want it to keep moving. But perch are used to digging in the mud, and often bite lures on bottom."
If the pod stays put, perch get excited by the activity. "Sometimes the bottom erupts on your graph and you see them congregate under the boat," Roach said. "I continue to cast the same distance as the depth they're appearing on sonar, letting the lure swing under the boat. After a while, perch begin biting on the drop, and you can fish straight down."
Roach uses medium-light 6-foot 8-inch to 7-foot 1-inch rods. Reels are spooled with 4-pound braid. He adds a 2-foot, 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. When perch won't hit jigging lures, he switches to a Thumper Jig. If they're reluctant, he adds a minnow. "Nine days out of 10, you don't need minnows," he said. "They're weird this time of year."
Great Lakes Secrets
Great Lakes perch have to be on the lookout 24/7. If the ice is good, fishermen target them all winter in harbors, bays, and connecting lakes, like Portage, one of Michigan's many drowned river-mouth lakes. By early spring, guides, charters, and launches are already targeting perch in places like Saginaw Bay, Saugatuck, and Green Bay.
As Lewis said, the pursuit of Lake Erie perch is practically sacred. He also said the man to call on Lake Erie is Captain Moses of Noah's Ark Charters. I was dumbstruck. This really is a religion, I thought. "His real name is Kim Yonkers," Lewis said. "He loves perch. Specializes in them on his big Carolina Classic. If you see a guy 14 miles out, anchored up for perch, it's Yonkers. He tracks 'em down all summer and he's successful at it."
Yonkers guides for perch from May through October. "2012 was one of our best years, whereas the weather made 2011 one of the worst," he said. "We couldn't get out. When we can get out in May, we hunt in shallow water. Perch spawn off the Dumping Grounds out of Lorain in 20 to 30 feet of water. Lake Erie is so different from other places in early season. It gets deep quickly. Perch might begin spawning in April, but they continue coming in all through May."
Yonkers uses the same tackle spring through fall. He uses commercial spreaders and also makes rigs with two or three hooks staggered up the line on Bear Paws — plastic nodes that slip up the line and are held in place with tension. Bear Paws act like the top of a classic red-and-white bobber, with a spring-loaded clip that extends out. Slide a hookeye or loop knot at the top of a leader into the clip, release, and it's held in place until you need to reposition it.
Yonkers ties a swivel to the end of the mainline, which clips to a loop-connect at the top of the rig. In the middle, 8 to 12 inches up, is the Bear Paw, and at the bottom of the rig a 1-ounce bell sinker on a snap swivel. Another leader is attached to that swivel. Leaders extending off the bottom swivel and the Bear Paw are about 6 inches long, terminating in #6 Aberdeen hooks. The entire rig is about 18 inches long. "I find rigs outperform spreaders 80 to 90 percent of the time," he said.
"These perch are mostly on bottom, but they sometimes suspend 3 or 4 feet up," Yonkers added. "One guy fishes 2 feet off bottom, another 4 feet off, and another right on bottom. I use sonar to help determine where they are in the water column, but most days the bite is on the floor. When the water is clear, they don't like color. A little murkiness and I use a bit of red or green tubing that fits over the crimps on the wire leader."
Yonkers has a secret bait: Dead minnows frozen in a homemade concoction that consistently produce more perch than live minnows. His customers know the score. Half start with live minnows, and the rest fish frozen minnows. Do live minnows ever work better? "Never," Yonkers laughed. "But we keep trying. About 70 percent of my customers are repeat and we always have live minnows, but the secret formula always outfishes live minnows. You can't take minnows across state lines and Lewis is now selling my frozen minnows."
Yonkers collects minnows in winter under a bait-gathering permit and freezes them by the kilo. But, he says, that's just one step toward consistent fishing.
"Depth is the prime factor," he claims. "The seasons of the perch and water temperature provide the best clues this time of year as to what depths perch use. Once we find it, we anchor in the right depth. That's the key. We have sand and gravel transitions to hunt along in Erie, but perch are where the baitfish are. Perch also feed on zebra mussels in early summer. We look for schools of fish on bottom with sonar, and where we search is dictated by water temperature and depth more than anything else. I keep a log of every trip, with 15 years of data relating water temperature, depth, water color, and other things, to location."
In the Western Basin, key depths in spring, as perch stage and spawn in water that's 54°F or less, are 23 to 30 feet. The next key is clear water. "In spring, we target clear water, using satellite images from the Internet to find it," he said. "Once we find the clearest water over the right depths, we scan with sonar, looking for bait and perch. Most local perch fishermen target several traditional areas. I don't follow the pack. I fish my own areas. There certainly are areas where perch always show up, year-after-year. But those aren't the only areas to fish."
The other keys, Yonkers said, are noise and patience. "Perch love noise," he said. "The more boats and people, the better. I don't mind company. But if I'm alone and on fish that wander off, I crank the engine and they come back. If you anchor in a good spot and wait, perch find you.
"Walleyes — you have to go find them. Perch come and find you. Activity draws them in. Wait 'em out at least a half hour. It's like clockwork. First you catch a couple white perch, then a sheepshead, then some little yellow perch. Right after that, the jumbos arrive and chase everything else away, and all you catch are jumbos. One day, you catch all 12- to 13-inch perch and the next day they're all 8- to 9-inchers. Perch tend to travel in groups that are all the same size."
Yonkers monitors the season's progress with his temperature gauge: "When the lake is 50°F to 62°F in early May, you can catch perch in 20 feet of water," he said. "As temperatures broach 62°F, I expand my search out to 45-foot depths. Once it reaches 68°F or so, they scatter deeper and won't return until fall. In fall, you find schools of fish. The colder the water gets, the closer they get to the shoreline. In spring and fall, perch are close to shore. In summer, you have to go out and find them, hunting for baitfish with sonar. They follow the baitfish."
Perch fishing may not be a religion, but it certainly can be spiritually satisfying during that forgotten season between ice-out and summer. Taking advantage of overlooked opportunities always are.
Adapting Tactics When Traditions Change
Perch have always been popular in the Great Lakes. But suddenly, traditional spots seem less productive in many areas. Tammi Paoli, fishery biologist for the Wisconsin DNR, explains: "We've had great year-classes of perch for a decade on Green Bay, but catch rates haven't improved," she said. "Perch fishing is good, but harvest isn't matching what we would expect."
Predation? "We've seen increases in predators from walleyes and cormorants." But she doesn't think that's the reason. "Anglers say they're catching perch in areas where they never found them before. Perch adapted to gobies — an invasive species — and prey upon them. Gobies are susceptible to changes in water temperature. Fronts chase them, overnight, to entirely different areas. Anglers say they find fish one day and the next day they're gone, and when they find them again they're 20 feet deeper. I think perch move more than they did historically, making them harder to track, though we have no studies to prove that. It seems to be getting tougher for anglers to stay on top of these fish."
Could be that Great Lakes perch anglers need to abandon tradition and go hunting. Some of the keys in this article should help.