Lake Michigan's Perch Man by Bob Gwizdz

Lake Michigan Magazines Panfish perch

Back before everything changed...

Before the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had the brainstorm that led to the billion-dollar Great Lakes recreational salmon fishery, lake trout were the alpha predators in the open water.

They provided precious little fishing opportunity as a combination of over-fishing and sea lampreys reduced their numbers to almost nothing. But there were still plenty of anglers who fished the big water. Their target?

Yellow perch. yellow perch fishing great lakes michigan

Ever since the mid 1960s, salmon have dominated the big-lake angling conversation.

But there are still plenty of anglers who prefer perch.

Dick Griffin is one of them. A retired school teacher, Griffin took up perch fishing on Lake Michigan when he moved from his mid-Michigan home town to the west side of the state for a teaching position after he got out of college, almost 50 years ago.

He’s been at it ever since. It has become his passion. 

These days, any time the weather is anything less than downright inhospitable, it’s a good bet that Griffin is on the water out of one of four Lake Michigan ports chasing around the yellow bellies. And if Griffin is on the water, there’s a high probability that he’s catching them.

 

It’s a rare year when he doesn’t meet—or even exceed—his goal, though it’s a lot harder now than it used to be, he’ll tell you.

When Griffin started, the daily creel limit on Lake Michigan perch was 100 per angler. With one other angler is his boat, it only took Griffin 25 two-man limits to hit his goal. And that was fairly easy, he says. 

“It wasn’t a matter of catching 100 apiece, it was a matter of how long it would take you,” Griffin said. “Back in the ‘70s, catching 5,000 fish was not a problem.”

 Back in those days there were a number of head boats operating out of South Haven and when the fishing was good, each one of those head boats would catch hundreds a day. It wasn’t any issue because the fish were just that numerous.

“It was not unusual to find a school of perch a half to three-quarter miles long and they’d be covering the bottom five feet of water,” Griffin said. 

It isn’t like that anymore. Perch populations are no longer seemingly infinite.

Changes in the food chain, caused in large part by the exotic species, have changed everything. Young-of- the-year perch have competition with other species (notably alewives, which serve as the food source for the salmon fishery) for the zooplankton young fish need to thrive. Zebra and quagga mussels, which were introduced into the Great Lakes from ballast water in ocean-going merchant ships, have further decimated the underpinnings of the perch population by filter feeding on the same wee beasties.   

Fisheries managers have reacted as best they could, by reducing the daily creel limits on perch, now at 35 per angler, forcing Griffin to fish a minimum of 72 days—if he limits out every time—to hit his goal. Still, he usually makes it.

“Last year we brought home 5,150,” Griffin said.

perch fishing lake michigan great lakes yellow

Fact is, only once over the years has Griffin failed bring home his 5,000.

That was in 2011, when the counter on the front of his boat wound up showing 3,860 at the end of the season.

“We were into nice perch right off the bat, then we got a northwest wind that blew like a sun of a gun for about a week, then all that river water pushed out into the lake right to the south of us and everything from 80 feet on in was completely silted in,” Griffin said. “We were down for three weeks or so, until I found some fish at South Haven.

(“South Haven isn’t as affected by wind and rain as Muskegon and Grand Haven because it doesn’t have the big rivers dumping silt into the water,” Griffin explained. “It’s just got that little Black Creek and it can handle that.”)

“We didn’t do well in the fall that year, either, and usually in the fall we really lay in the fish.”

Griffin starts fishing when the water temperature approaches 40 degrees.

...usually in mid to late March. 

“I usually start when the water temperature hits 38 degrees because the water on the bottom is warmer than the water on the top,” Griffin said. “Below that, they just don’t hit.”

I’ve fished with Griffin a day or two a year for more than a decade, from March to September. (He keeps fishing well into the fall, but by then I’ve generally switched gears.) So I’ve been able to study his technique.

If there’s a secret to his success, it is the consistency of his approach.

Griffin has about a million waypoints on his GPS unit out of the four ports he fishes: Muskegon, Grand Haven, Port Sheldon and South Haven.

He doesn’t even bother looking for new water any more—he just travels from waypoint to waypoint and idles around an area until he finds fish on his depth finder.

If his GPS were to go out, he says, he wouldn’t even go out, though, in truth, he has paper records to back up his electronic memory bank and he laminates them and keeps the last five years of them on his boat.

He’s been through the whole gamut of electronics: paper chart recorders, Loran C, you name it. He’s currently using a high-definition Lowrance unit.

Depending on the season, Griffin fishes anywhere from shallow water (“five, six, seven feet,” he said.) to more than 100 feet deep.

“Last year I think 20 to 25 feet was as shallow as I got, but most of my time was spent at 50 to 70, and more of it was at 70 than at 50,” he said. “I have some holes out of Muskegon that are 100, 110 feet deep, but never even went to Muskegon last year.

“Most of the time I fish from about 60 to 75 feet. Later in the summer time, when the fish are in shallow, I’ll jump right into 10 or 12 feet. I’ll go where I need to go. But I’d rather fish the deeper water because usually the fish run a little bit bigger in deeper water.”

Griffin found his spots the old-fashioned way—looking for bottom structure on his electronics, and then fishing them until he found the ones that produced.

Significant changes in bottom—say a hump that rises 20 feet above surrounding flats—seem to hold fish better than less dramatic changes, he says, but sometimes just a small change in bottom will do the trick. 

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, shell or clay,” he said. “The majority of it is clay. It’s just got to have some structure.” 

griffin perch fishing lake michiganHis typical fishing pattern is simple: He heads the boat into the wind at a waypoint until he locates a school of fish on his electronics. Then he sets up on them.

He goes past the waypoint and drops his anchor (a 15-pound digger—he sharpens the flukes so they’ll dig into the clay on the bottom) and lets out rope until he’s back over the fish.

He has a bow-mounted electric anchor system with 350 feet of rope. The rope is marked (with a felt pen) in 50-foot increments. He generally lets out twice as much rope as the depth he’s fishing—say, 100 feet of rope for 50 feet of water—though if it’s rough out, he lets out more.

Griffin believes in quality rods (in the $200 range) and prefers seven-foot, light-action graphite rods with titanium eyes and reel seats.

He’s not as particular about his reels, though he insists on high-quality spinning models. He spools up with eight-pound braided Power Pro line and attaches a 14-foot length of eight-pound fluorocarbon leader tied directly to the braid with a surgeon’s knot. The long leader is insurance, he said; if he breaks off, he can re-tie hooks and sinkers without having to tie on a new leader.

Griffin prefers either hand-tied flies (preferably pink yard with silver flecks) or ice fishing-style teardrop jigs with No. 6 gold hooks. He ties one six to eight inches above the sinker, the other six to eight inches above that. 

To stay on bottom, Griffin said, he uses anywhere from a two-ounce to four-ounce round sinker. Anything less than two ounces won’t hold if there’s any current or wind (which there always is) and the round sinkers don’t have any edges on them to hang up on rocks or other bottom debris.

Baits

Griffin has used all manner of bait over the years—including minnows that he trapped himself from creeks and rivers, but says he’s become too lazy to do that anymore. He uses spikes about 98 percent of the time now and puts two or three spikes on the hook. He used to prefer mousies, he said, but they’ve gotten hard to find and cost about six times as much as spikes, which he buys by the thousands. 

Perch Fishing Tips

When he’s ready to roll, Griffin just drops his lines over the side—he generally fishes two rods—tightens them up, and watches his rod tips. The wind and wave action takes the place of actively jigging, he said. Then he concentrates on his rod tip.

“Just watch the rod tip,” he says. “I do not catch one in ten, maybe not even that many, when I feel the hit. Guys who don’t watch the rod tip are just missing a lot of fish, the majority of their bites.”

"Perch will inhale and reject a bait before most guys can feel it." he said. He just looks for anything different on the rod tip and if it as much as wiggles, he sets the hook.

Griffin rarely leaves an area he’s catching fish, even if the perch are running small.

“Fish have fins,” he said. “They move around. If you’re catching small fish, it may not be too long before some bigger fish swim in there."

"Never leave fish to find fish. Never.”

Despite the slow start to 2013, Griffin is hanging on to his goal of 5,000 fish in his boat this season. “I sure plan on it,” he said.

And knowing Griffin as I do, I sure wouldn’t bet against him.

 

- Written by

Bob Gwizdz

East Lansing, MI

 



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