I was looking around the Internet the other day and found a site offering frozen yellow perch filets (butterflied, skin on) in five-pound lots for $110. That’s $22 per pound! You can buy fresh beef tenderloins—the cut that yields filet mignons—for half of that.
A beaded spoon yielded this catch for Saginaw Bay angler Greg Sochcki.
Let’s begin this discussion with a point that I believe we can all agree upon: As far as table fare goes, very few entrees beat yellow perch. And apparently a lot of folks—not all of them fishermen—agree; I was looking around
the Internet the other day and found a site offering frozen yellow perch filets (butter-flied, skin on) in five-pound lots for $110. That’s $22 per pound! You can buy fresh beef tenderloins—the cut that yields filet mignons—for half of that.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to buy yellow perch. We can catch ‘em. Many
of the waters of the Great Lakes, especially the bays and the drowned river mouths that adjoin the lakes, are an excellent place to get them. And winter, through the ice, is an excellent time to fish for them.
Perch are like a lot of other panfish in one significant way—they are generally in shallow water at first ice.
“At first ice they can be very shallow,” said Steve Sendek, a retired Michigan Department of Natural resources fisheries biologist and a big fan of ice fishing for perch. “You find them around weeds and it can be fast and furious. As winter grinds on, they typically like to move deeper. The bite is usually off and on in mid-winter—sometimes you have drill tons and tons of holes to find out there they are. They cruise around a lot. Usually you have to get right on top of them and when you do, the fishing is great.
“Toward spring, they come back shallow again and they’re very, very weed-oriented as they’re looking for places to spawn and they drape their eggs over structure in the water—brush or weed beds.”
Sendek says he looks for Chara (pronounced like the lady’s name: Cara) when perch fishing. Chara—commonly called sand grass by bass anglers—is a type of algae that’s kind of prickly to the touch. It grows only a few inches up from bottom, but often carpets large areas.
“That’s a grocery store for perch,” he said. “The scuds and bugs and wigglers and minnows hide in the Chara and that’s where the perch find food. Sometime during the day, they’re going to be on Chara and when they are, they’re usually eating. Whenever I ice fish for perch, that’s what I’m looking for.”
So when you’re fishing Chara, you’re fishing close to the bottom. Frankly, I always start at the bottom and never get far from it; the only time I’ve ever caught them much off bottom is when I’ve been on whopping schools that are deep. But some perch anglers say you’re missing a lot of fish if you don’t get up in the water column.
“Maybe 60 percent of the fish I catch are halfway up or more,” says Fred Fields, a mostly bass fishing guide who works Grand Traverse Bay but has made a name for him-self as an ice angler for perch, too.
Once you get past those basic decisions—what depth and where to fish in the water column—there are about as many approaches to perch fishing as there are perch fishermen.
For the most part, perch fishermen fish with live bait, though you’ll get an argument among them about which bait is best.
Jeff Sowa, with whom I fish a handful of days a year, is sold on bait. Sowa fishes with minnows the vast majority of the time, usually smallish (say about two inches) specimens, but he acknowledges “there are times when they want something small—wax worms or spikes or even eyes.”
Sowa says that when the weather’s fair enough to fish out on the ice (as opposed to in a shanty) he prefers to fish with a bobber, hooking the minnow through the tail so it can swim around.
“When it’s above freezing and I can fish outside, I put on a bobber and just lay the rod across a bucket,” he said. He prefers a single hook and as little weight on the line as he can get away with, though it can be frustrating because “it’s slow—it takes a while to get down there 40 to 50 feet.
“Otherwise, I use a perch rig with how-ever much weight it takes to get down—I like to keep it light—and often use a flat spring bobber,” Sowa said. “But a single hook rig is how I catch most of my bigger perch.”
Sendek, who generally fishes with bait (spikes or wax worms, on tear drops) prefers to fish from a shanty when he can and he generally cuts a large opening—like a spear-ing hole—so he can watch the fish bite.
“You can sort them without having to catch them,” he said.
“When you see a little one coming toward your bait you can pull it away. “When they’re really biting you want to get them as fast as you can, so I try to avoid wax worms because they come off too easily,” Sendek said. “I like spikes; they stay on better. But when they’re finicky you sometimes have to go to a minnow, some-times a small minnow, to get them to bite. When they’re really biting, you can use a fake grub like Berkley Power Baits or little plastic rat tails. There’s so little fuss with them and they’ll stay on nearly all day.”
But there are times when Sendek gets off the spikes and gets on the minnows, often large minnows, when he knows he’s around large perch. He definitely believes in the big-bait, big-fish philosophy.
Beaded spoons are the hot bait on Saginaw Bay.
“When you want to target the bigger perch, go for big baits,” he said, “a larger minnow or a jig. I catch a lot of my bigger perch on tip-ups. You can eliminate the small bite and catch the big guys on blues (emerald shiners) or grays (spot-tailed shiners). You put a big minnow on—it’s not unusual to get 12- to 14-inch perch on tip-ups.”
Sendek warns that guys may not catch big numbers when using tip-ups. He recalls a trip to the Les Chenaux Islands are of Lake Huron he made with his son a couple of winters ago when they fished all day long for 13 perch. But they filled half a five-gallon bucket, he said.
“Eleven of them were 14 inches or larger,” he said. “The largest was 15 ½ inches—huge, huge perch.”
One of my regular ice-fishing buddies, Chris Freiburger, who is a fisheries biologist with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, is sold on bait, too. He’ll use what-ever he can get—“in many cases, I don’t think they’re particular,” he said—but he generally prefers minnows. And he always uses bait in conjunction with lures – small spoons for instance—but will go to larger baits (like a walleye-sized jigging Rapala) if he’s catching small fish.
“Typically, once you find ‘em and you can get them going, they’re cooperative,” Freiburger said. “It’s fast fishing when it’s happening. Hit that school as hard as you can as quickly as you can. It’s that feeding frenzy thing. It’s not going to last forever. They move and they may come back or they may not. When they’re in the hole, make hay, because they’re like kids—if you don’t keep them entertained, they run off.”
Freiburger always fishes near bottom.
“Pound the bottom, that’s my experience,” Freiburger said. “I’ve never caught them very far up in the water column.”
Freiburger said some of the guys he fished with when he lived in Minnesota would start the day with a large spoon—like a Dardevle—and bounce if off the bottom a few times before they ever even dropped a bait, just to get the perch attracted to an area. And he’s particular about the bottom composition.
“I like to find that transition zone between hard and soft bottom,” Freiburger said. “You have minnows feeding on the invertebrates in the softer substrate and you’re more likely to find vegetation on the softer material. And the perch eat those invertebrates, too, so, my thought is, if you can find that interface between soft and hard bottom, you can find a diversity of foods.
“If you look at any animal, that transition zone is kind of an efficient place for them to be.”
Chris Noffsinger, one of the better-known bass guides on Grand Traverse Bay, expanded his business to include ice fishing, too, and perch is one of the species he targets. He generally fishes with bait but isn’t sold on any one type.
“I fish with live bait a lot of the time—minnows, wigglers or wax worms,” he said. “I love using the underwater camera to see how they’re reacting to the bait that you’re using. But you’ve got to keep changing un-til you see what works, what they want. It’s same principle as any other fishing.
Noffsinger says perch rigs are good, “but sometimes they want it moving. Hali jigs are good, but sometimes they want a Jigging Rapala.”
Generally I’ll fish with whatever the other guys I’m fishing with are using, but if there’s one style fishing I like better than the others, it’s fishing with beaded spoons. They’re the go-to baits on Saginaw Bay—where I do a fair amount of my perch fishing—and most of the guys I know who perch fish there use them. And many of them don’t even want you around them if you’re using minnows; they say minnows attract the small fish that they’re trying to avoid.
Author with a shallow water perch.
The vast majority of the beaded-spoon anglers I know eschew rods and reels and use jigging sticks—short poles of bamboo or metal (some guys make them out of old arrows)—with a couple of studs near the handle that you wrap your line around. The drill is: Unwrap enough line to lower your bait to the bottom and start jigging. You can cover a four- or five-foot swatch of the water column that way, but you often don’t have to because, at last early in the season, you’re often in only a few feet of water.
The advantage to jigging sticks is you haul the fish right out of the water. Most guys I know pinch down the barb so once they extricate the perch from the water, they can bang it against the ice, the fish will fall off, and they can immediately drop the spoon back down to where the last bite came from. There’s no stopping to re-bait. The fishing can be fast and furious when it’s working right, but it gets a little more complicated if you’re fishing deep water because you have to use the pole and your off hand to wind in the line and then re-verse the process when dropping the spoon back down.
One of the better beaded-spoon anglers I know is Darren McGathy, proprietor of McGathy’s Hooks, which makes Slab Grabbers, popular spoons in the Saginaw Bay area, where he lives.
McGathy says all the other parameters—size, color, and jigging speed—figure into the equation.
“Do whatever’s working for you,” McGathy said. “Jig it three or four or five times, then pause for three or four or five seconds. Get your own rhythm going. About 95 percent of the fish bite on the pause.”
McGathy, who makes his spoons in a variety of sizes, from just more than an inch to three inches, says anglers should use small spoons when the bite is tough.
“Sometimes you have to use that 1 1/4th inch bait in 35 feet of water,” he said, “It takes a long time to get down there but you have to surrender to it. But it’s not a miracle bait. It’s not a good bait when they‘re not biting.”
And, of course, beaded spoons are not the only artificials guys use for perch. Fields uses soft-plastics on jig heads. He’s “totally” a sight fisherman.
“I use a multitude of soft plastics,” he said. “Crappie tubes, baby Flukes, miniature swim baits.”
Fields, who says he’s very quick to change colors if he’s not getting the response he’s seeking, says he prefers small jigs—1/50th of an ounce—but will go up to 1/32nds if he has to fish deep. He especially likes perch-colored baits.
“Last year on the full moon in February you could these small perch—around two inches moving in waves,” he said. “And those big perch were right in there with them.”
But the key is watching how the fish are reacting, he said.
“There are a lot of times when they don’t want that bait moving at all. If you’re fishing clear water, it doesn’t need to move. Keep it inanimate. Lots of times when I was first figuring this out, I’d shake the bait and watch those fish take off.”