Phat Spring Perch
June 02, 2011
Perch hold a special place in the hearts and bellies of anglers. They bring back fishing memories from our childhood. But as perch anglers gain more expertise, the goal shifts from filling the basket to basking in the glory of catching jumbos — those robust 12-inchers, so big that it only takes a couple golden battered fillets over a bed of wild rice and a side of almond-sauteed asparagus to make a fine meal.
Anglers from East to West have ample opportunities to make dinner reservations with jumbo perch. The Plains states have legendary Devils Lake within their reach. Minnesota is blessed with Lake Winnibigosh and a multitude of other perch factories. Michigan's UP boasts crazy big jumbos from Lake Gogebic. Ontario has Lake Simcoe for both numbers and size. Ohio and Pennsylvania share the bounty of Lake Erie, while East Coast anglers have a mini 'Great Lakes' perch fishery in Lake Champlain.
As good as these fisheries are, anglers surrounding Lake Michigan enjoy some of the finest jumbo perch fishing available. Here, perch often stretch the tape at 14 to 16 inches and can surpass 2 pounds. Patterning these big-water fish requires a multi-technique approach adaptable to most inland lakes and reservoirs.
The spring perch season kicks off on Lake Michigan in late March. As water temperatures hit 38°F, pods of perch start to reappear from the abyss, making their way to structural elements in 40 to 70 feet of water in anticipation of the spring spawn. Early arrivals consist mainly of males. The majority of egg laden females stay away until conditions stabilize and temperatures moderate into the low-40°F range. When the water temperature reaches 46°F to 48°F, the spawn begins in earnest and their focus shifts away from eating.
To locate the first wave of perch, use a trolling technique to cover the greatest amount of water while keeping lures in the feeding zone. Most panfish anglers neglect trolling for perch, even though it's a top option for their larger cousin, the walleye. Trolling makes perfect sense. Just downsize baits and scale back on gear. Select 7- to 10-foot medium-action graphite rods. Berkley's Air IM8 (A92-8-6M) and St. Croix's Wild River (WC86MF2) rods are perfectly suited for perch trolling. Pair rods with line-counter reels and 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine. The thin diameter of FireLine means less drag on the line and more sensitivity for detecting subtle bites. With an early season perch diet consisting mainly of small minnows, gobies, and crayfish, select crankbaits in the 2- to 3.5-inch range that match the forage.
Since jumbos are notorious for feeding tight to the bottom, present lures 6 inches to 3 feet off bottom. To do so effectively in 40 to 70 feet of water, use a three-way rig, bottom bouncer, or detachable weight system. Captain Tim Wojnicz operates the FinQuest, a six-pack charter boat out of Waukegan, Illinois, for jumbo perch during the months of April and May, and offers some tips on locating perch.
"Prior to starting the season I scout for fish to make certain that I'm on perch for my charter customers on day one" he says. "To locate scattered perch, I troll with two rods, one off each side of the transom, and three-way rigs. On a three-way swivel I tie a 1-foot dropper to a 2- to 3-ounce pencil weight and a 3- to 6-foot lead of 6-pound-test monofilament to the lure — a Rapala F-7, Storm ThunderStick Jr, or Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow or Pin's Minnow. This setup keeps the lure within inches of the bottom." Wojnicz maps where perch are holding, then comes back with a slower, more precise livebait presentation when fishing with customers.
For trolling, choose lures that maintain their action at slow trolling speeds of 1.0 to 1.3 mph. For more action from stickbaits, remove the front treble hook. Perch don't hit lures sideways. Ninety percent of the hookups come on the lure's back hook as perch rush the bait from behind. By removing the front treble, the lure takes on a more exaggerated wobble and snags less on rocks, vegetation, and other bottom debris.
A bottom bouncer with a 3- to 4-foot leader to the lure is a no-hassle alternative to a three-way rig. Bottom bouncers of 2 to 4 ounces can be fished closer to vertical under the boat in rough conditions, allowing for tighter turns when circling back through the school. In addition to running small stickbaits, bottom bouncers also are naturals for pulling spinner rigs or spin-n-glos. Keep spinner rigs on the small side with #2 to #3 Indiana or willowleaf blades. Fishing these rigs with Gulp! 3-inch Minnow Grubs eliminates the need to rebait hooks due to stolen livebait from small perch or gobies. Gulp! stays on the hook better than livebait and retains its action even at slow speeds.
As water temperature nears the mid-40°F range, large schools of perch form near spawning grounds. Unlike bluegills, perch don't make individual beds to lay and tend to their eggs. Instead, they hold near gravel or transition areas where they eventually deposit their eggs along the bottom and then move on. Wojnicz fishes these areas with his own custom-tied FinQuest Deepwater Double Perch Rig.
The FinQuest rig starts with a 3-foot length of 8-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon. A one-inch loop, tied at the top end, is attached to the snap swivel on the mainline. A #6 red Owner Mosquito hook is tied 14 inches down the line on a 1-inch dropper loop. Twelve inches down from the first hook, a 1- to 3-ounce pencil sinker is attached to a 2-inch dropper loop. A second hook is attached to the end of the remaining 6 to 10 inches of leader. Both hooks are baited with medium-size fatheads. With the pencil weight lowered to bottom, the top bait rides about a foot off bottom while the other targets perch holding within inches off bottom.
Wojnicz drifts his rigs at .4 to .7 mph. To reduce drift speed on windy days, he uses a driftsock and a 101-pound thrust Minn Kota trolling motor off the stern. "Speed is a critical element for early season perch," he says. "Some days just one or two tenths of a mile per hour can make all the difference." Along with speed, proper depth control remains the most critical element to getting bit. As the speed of the drift increases, resistance on the line causes the rig to rise off the bottom. Constantly adjust the amount of line out to maintain bottom contact.
Forty miles south of Waukegan, Captain Ralph Steiger targets perch on the waters surrounding Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Even though the southern portion of Lake Michigan has a much more gradual slope and takes several miles offshore to reach 100 feet of water, he favors depths in the 40- to 60-foot range, searching for irregular areas with clay bottom.
Steiger suggests anglers buy good electronics, learn how to use them, and trust their equipment to put them on fish. "I start my day by watching my Lowrance for clay bottom areas with some serious perch marks," he says. "Next, I drift through these areas with double perch-fly rigs, and anchor once I've found the highest concentration of fish on structure."
Unlike traditional wire-arm crappie spreader rigs that have plain hooks on 6- to 10-inch snells attached to the spreader arms, perch-fly rigs have flashabou material tied to size #4 Aberdeen hooks for added color and flash. The flies are attached to the mainline with a 1-inch loop knot about 6 and 18 inches above the dropper sinker. Short loops keep the flies free floating, imparting more action on the bait and reducing tangles.
Having fished plain spreader rigs side-by-side against perch fly rigs, Steiger is confident that fly rigs catch his clients more jumbos. "Even though these rigs are tipped with minnows, perch still show a daily preference for fly colors. Most days orange or chartreuse produces best, but other times white or pink is key. Many doubles come on this rig even when the bait is missing from one of the hooks. A perch bites the baited fly and soon it is zipping around with a free-swinging fly trailing it. That is sure to attract a second perch."
In addition to fishing double fly rigs directly under the boat with a slow lift-shake-and-drop presentation, Steiger has clients make short casts with the rig and slowly drag it back to the boat prior to fishing it vertically. He often fishes this rig on a less than tight line, explaining that "by having some bow in the line, the bait is allowed to fall and suspend even closer to the bottom. When the big females near the spawn, they often lay with their bellies right on the clay. They often won't rise even a foot to eat a bait, so deliver it right to them."
Steiger experiments with many bait and lure options when perch become stubborn. If fathead minnows stop producing, he switches to rosy reds, lake shiners, or his secret weapon — baby golden roaches. Even though they're not as hardy as fatheads and lack the flash of lake shiners, golden roaches can rule the day when perch turn negative. Use baby roaches in the 2- to 2.5-inch range. Bigger roaches get bit by jumbos but not with the same consistency as smaller baits in spring.
As a multispecies guide targeting perch, smallmouth bass, lake trout, and salmon, Steiger can't sit back on a slow bite. "I'm always looking to see if perch are biting on the top or bottom hook. What is the color preference for the day? Is there a certain action, depth, or side of the structure that they are holding on? When perch are finicky, I break out my ice-fishing jig box and find a few offerings they can't refuse. Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and Jigging Rapalas are among my favorites."
The Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon has the added movement, flash, and noise lacking in subtle livebait rigs. Even tentative perch are attracted to the commotion of jigging spoons. Next comes the triggering mechanism — add bait to make them irresistible. Replace the treble hook on jigging spoons with a size #2 Owner Mosquito hook and tip it with a minnow head for a more snag-proof option with a natural scent. Other jigging options include Jigging Rapalas and Salmo Chubby Darters with a 1- to 2-inch dropper to a minnow head, either on a jig or hook. Or a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Jig with a fathead minnow hooked in reverse from just behind the dorsal.
No matter where you fish for perch, try these approaches to locate and trigger jumbos. As with any good thing, don't overharvest a hot bite. Jumbo perch may be extra tasty, but they deserve the same sound conservation practices afforded other fish. Harvest selectively, keeping enough for a meal and releasing jumbo females.
In-Fisherman Contributor Steve Ryan lives in Des Plaines, Illinois. The multispecies expert appears on In-Fisherman television. Contact: Capt. Ralph Steiger 219/688-3593; captainsteiger.com; Capt. Tim Wojnicz, 262/652-4459; finquestfishing.com.