Understanding Perch Diets
February 27, 2014
Perch really do go on and off their diets. At times they eat sparingly, as though they're fasting for a wedding or class reunion, wishing to fit into that special dress or mothballed cheerleader outfit. Binging comes more easily, though, eating half-gallons of ice cream in the middle of the night while watching favorite TV reruns.
Human diets change for reasons like stress, depression, health, and the quest for a sexier appearance. Perch do it for different reasons — none of them contemplative — mandated by nature. Perch diets play the hand they're dealt, making the most of available forage and environmental conditions that guide their behavior.
In this spirit, it's reasonable to say that perch of the same stripe and size feed on what's available and what biology instructs them to eat. Our tasks as anglers are to determine what's available to consume and what forage the fish prefer at a given time, as well as what to present.
For this discussion, we turn to Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, a man at the top of his game when it comes to analyzing perch behavior and their responses to various presentations. Bro puts science and experience to answer the quandary of whether to fish big or small.
"Fish of the same size, even the same fish, hit baits both big and small," he explains. "Sometimes, if they're aggressive, you can drop a tiny jig and waxworm or a big fat jigging spoon and get the same fish to strike. But usually, it seems individual fish prefer a certain size and type of bait."
To discover what bait to use and when, one must first understand available forage. This is the nexus of perching knowledge. "Some lakes have 'bug bites' and others 'baitfish bites,'" Bro says. That status can run vice versa on the same lake at different times, too.
Some lakes are largely aquatic-insect oriented. They might feature freshwater shrimp (scuds). The house specialty on others might be bloodworms (midge larvae), mayfly larvae (wigglers), or even scads of immature crayfish. Those are Bro's "bug lakes." Other bodies of water showcase baitfish, perhaps lake shiners or darters, or young of the year, be they miniature perch or juvenile fish of another species. And there are lakes that have almost every type of bait imaginable, which can cause perch to be picky about what they select from the buffet.
Bro says, "Size of the bait does not dictate the size of fish you catch, when it comes to perch. It's more important to match the conditions to catch the biggest fish in any given system."
Thin is In
On any given natural lake, perch can occupy depths most would consider unworkable — like 2 to 4 feet of water. That can mean 2 feet of ice and an accompanying 2 feet of water, or less.
What drives perch to this extreme environment is the availability of food and enough protective cover to last another day. And the eats are most often baitfish, but other aquatics, including scuds, mayfly larvae, and bloodworms, can inhabit these shallow zones. "Young-of-the-year perch can be all over the place, darting around the weeds. Oh, yeah, and darters, too, and those little sculpin-looking fish you see zipping around the weeds. Perch eat them all."
So what makes one extreme shallows better than another? Bro says good weeds are paramount. "On the lakes I fish, weeds need to be alive, green. Chara grass, coontail, cabbage, whatever, just as long as it's green."
Top spots feature dead spires of bulrushes jousting through the ice. A picket fence of rushes combined with vivacious weeds is nearly surefire. Other laudable elements include random rocks, timber, and clearings amidst a forest of cover. The foremost areas are sizable, too, and cozy-up to a steep break. Back bays, flooded timber, and large shallow flats with scattered boulders mixed with sand can all be good. "Perch like big hunting grounds, so I find the widest weedy shallows along a good shoreline break," he says.
Shallow usually translates into aggressive feeding. "I like lots of flashing and tumbling, like a willowleaf-style flash lure, and not too heavy — actually, pretty light for its size. And don't be afraid of size when perch are on a baitfish bite."
The Williams Whitefish and Quick Silver spoons are tailored to the situation. They fish large, flashing wildly, but without surplus weight. Bay de Noc Swedish Pimples are heavier, but still get it done. All of these can be tipped with maggots, a minnowhead, or a whole minnow.
Brosdahl uses 4-pound P-Line or 2-pound Berkley FireLine Crystal, always tying in a small barrel swivel to relieve line-twist. With P-Line he simply cuts in a 12-inch hunk off the main spool. A 2-foot fluorocarbon "shock leader" is needed when employing a less-forgiving superline like Berkley Crystal.
His act of jigging is quite animated, too. Attract and trigger — the perch are shallow to feed. Brosdahl likes sharp one-foot or better sweeps. At the apex, the lure is released to tumble without opposition.
Genes Influence Pant Size
You can't ignore their lineage, their roots. At the end of the day, a perch is still a small walleye that tolerates light and bears no fangs. However, we tend to lump them in the breaded-and-fried category of panfish, sharing freezer space with crappies and bluegills. True, they are tasty and often behave like panfish, but equally as often perch play the roll of a shrunken walleye.
"People assume when they see my bigger jigging spoons and swimbaits tied on that I'm heading out for walleyes. Well, sometimes I am, but just as often I'm not," says Brosdahl, referring to his upsized arsenal for perch.
Regardless of the lake, situation, or mood swings of his fishing partner, he always opens large and downsizes as necessary. "Why mess with little stuff if the fish are happy with big baits? Think big first, and then drop down if they aren't taking the bait."
Brosdahl believes that the biggest fish in a pod or school are the most antagonistic. So he cherry-picks, taking shots at those beloved jumbos first. Once the size structure diminishes he moves along to the next hole, or to a nearby, predrilled area. Eventually, he'll probably run out of alpha-fatties and need to lower the bar. Or he might relocate altogether, if there's another similar spot where he can break out the metal shop. "Fishing with walleye'‘sized lures doesn't always get the most fish, but it usually takes the biggest," he says.
Competition is another factor. Perch might travel in orderly schools, but they turn into bullies when the scent of baitfish is in the water, or when they see a fellow school member eat something with enthusiasm. "Big lures seem to create greater competition within the school," says Bro. "Rile up one fish and you'll rile up the herd. And bigger baits seem to trigger that response."
You never can guess at the size of the school, either. Might be a full'‘bodied pod of a couple dozen fish, or a respectable school with a hundred or more members. Point being, it's imperative to get up and down with urgency. Hook and land a fish, and get the bait back down like you're saving lives. Sizes can mix, so don't reposition at the first dink, either. Weed through a couple and move if conditions don't improve.
Attraction is another reason to camp through a few smaller fish. "A big flashy bait can lure in other pods of active fish, the roamers," he says. This is particularly true if fish constantly appear and disappear, as shown on the Vexilar. That's a sure sign of commerce.
Swimbaits are prime candidates for the walleye-influenced enlargement. The Salmo Chubby Darter is one example, particularly their new #3 micro-sized bait. So is the tried-and-true Rapala Jigging Rap, as well as the newer Jigging Shad Rap. Bro opens with a conventional perch-patterned W3 Jigging Rap. Perch are cannibals, so feel free to feed them their own. An upsize to a W5 or downsize to a W2 happens as fish tempers dictate.
From the spoon side, Brosdahl tenders a bold-looking Lindy Legendary Fishing Flyer Spoon, 1/4 ounce or greater. "Perch are very visual. Their cousin the walleye can operate on feel, smell, and taste. Perch need to see what they eat first, so I pay close attention to detail, everything from as light a line as I can get away with to baitfish patterns and crisp colors on the lure."
Conditions can change with a flip of nature's switch. The wrong front or onset of winter's doldrums renders a spoon irrelevant. Brosdahl quickly cuts free the walleye riggings and dispatches the small stuff. Out come the teardrops, Genz worms, and myriad other classic panfish morsels — there's no science here.
The upsizing and downsizing drum has been beat before. Upgrade when it's hot and downgrade when it's not. The same core formula applies to everything that swims and tastes good in breadcrumbs.
So, what about the bug-eaters? Can't a perch live on miniscule bloodworms and still cover the bottom of a bucket? Absolutely, he says.
"Some perch live their entire lives grubbing on bloodworms, freshwater shrimp, and other aquatic bottom-dwelling invertebrates. And as sure as there's a good supply of food, there'll be perch, including jumbo perch."
Said forage-types typically but not always reside in deeper climes in soft to semi-soft bottoms, where they bury to hide and rise to feed. This existence and behavior causes perch to "carpet feed," literally tilt their tail vertically and inhale. Nose in the dirt, they burrow like hogs on truffles ferreting out meals for the master. A heavily mined area resembles a well-used but unraked sandtrap.
Bottom-feeders are worthy of your attention. The trick to catching critter-fed perch on the bottom of the pond is feeding them an appetizer-sized morsel delivered with manly metal. These are nit-picky perch that like to peck.
Brosdahl's not fond of sissy stuff, preferring the standard dropper-rig. Often written about and employed for decades, the dropper is still as good as gold. And if you haven't rigged one before, it's never too late to become a better angler. His staple package consists of a 1/4-ounce spoon, 6-inch dropper, small jig, and something that wriggles and pulses when pierced. He removes the treble hook from the spoon but leaves the split-ring (if one exists). The 6-inch dropper line connects the open split-ring to the jig, typically a #12 Lindy Fat Boy. On go a couple of waxies or maggots and you've got it, the slickest perch-catching concoction since dynamite.
Jig, jig, jig, and hold. Let the meaty part lie in the mud, lifting a little here and there. Slam the spoon into the bottom, too — makes quite the hullabaloo. Sometimes, they vacuum it right up. And a well-charged flasher with a non-internally shattered transducer shows both the dropper spoon and jig. That's important if perch are yo-yoing between the two.
As a last resort, he ties a super-finesse dropper rig. It consists of the same 6-inch dropper, anchored by a horizontal jig such as a Genz Worm. (The segmented body is ideal for tying onto.) Remove the bottom treble from a W2 Jigging Rap, tie in the dropper, and you have another interesting rendition. The final act is attaching a fiber-optic thin trout hook — #12 or #14 with a tiny minnow, #14 to #18 with a single thread waxworm, or #18 to #22 with a lonely nose-hooked maggot.
If that doesn't work, call it a day. Even Bro has a tolerance threshold.
*Noel Vick is a freelance writer and Director of Business Development for Industrio Marketing, an agency specializing in outdoor recreation.
(Links to above lures: jblures.com, bluefox.com, acmetackle.com, customjigs.com) Super-action flash lures have large profiles that fish big and create lots of flash and vibration. But even small perch can inhale these sizeable thin metal spoons — starting with the trebles. Great perch anglers have kept secret the Blue Fox Rattle Flash Jig'n Spoons for too long. Available in holographic, hammered finish, and glow, this loud-rattling, high-action flash lure deserves a spot in your box. I'd pick up a few Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoons while you're shopping, too. Simple in design, the Slender Spoon is a great bait to modify into a search lure (dropper rig). The JB Lures Angle Eye Spoon and the Acme Phoebe are two fine examples of baitfish-profile super-action spoons. Each has unique curvatures that create a tremendous amount of vibration on the upstroke and have a rapid horizontal wobble on the fall. — Jeff Simpson