Winter Perch: More Bang for the Buck

I had an older client this fall that “accidentally” caught an 11-inch perch while fishing for walleyes. He loudly proclaimed, “Hey, that’s a winter fish, throw it back!”

The comment took me by surprise and I could have argued the point. But he didn’t seem to be the debating type, so I decided to go with the motto, “The customer is always right.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the old-timer might’ve had a valid point. Many anglers only fish for perch through the ice, despite plenty of opportunities for good perch available to them in open water. Perch are often scorned during the summer, and revered during winter. Winter anglers often target perch instead of walleyes because the perch bite more consistently and are usually easier to catch. Perch fishing does give an angler more bang for the buck. Anglers targeting these often catch walleyes and northern pike “by accident” and end up going home with a mixed bag.

Winter is the most consistent time of the year to catch perch, as they stay active most of the day. Perch fishing is open year ‘round in Minnesota, but there are several limiting factors for growing big perch in these waters. And, it usually takes a larger lake to provide everything perch need to grow to jumbo size. This species requires plenty of standing vegetation in the spring to lay their eggs. They also need shallow flats with minnows and crayfish during the summer and a good insect base for the winter.

Most larger-sized lakes in northern Minnesota have good perch fishing, with Winnibigoshish, Leech and Cass as some of the better-known lakes. There are also dozens of medium-sized lakes in the Bemidji and Grand Rapids areas that produce good age-classes of perch, from time to time.

When talking about jumbo perch though, most are referring to perch longer than 10 inches. This fish usually tops out around 14 inches in most of the good perch lakes. Most target the larger perch, but limits encourage anglers to focus more on numbers rather than size. Many anglers start harvesting perch around 8 inches, especially when the larger perch are not readily available.

This makes it tougher for the populations to recover if they have two or more weak age-classes in a row. When there is a gap in the perch population, the next strongest age-class of this fish coming up will start to get harvested early because of the lack of larger fish at the top.

Many of the local lakes are coming out of a low cycle the past couple of winters. The numbers of perch longer than 10 inches this winter should be on the increase, with the populations hopefully rebounding in the next couple of years. These fish are aggressive feeders, and travel in schools. Most perch live on either the shallow or deep flats during the winter too. The perch in my part of the country (northern Minnesota) are usually split between shallow and deep water. The fish in the deep flats are usually feeding on insect larvae, while those feeding on the shallow flats are usually eating minnows and crayfish.

Each lake is different; some have most of the population feeding in deep water, while other lakes have most of the perch feeding on the shallow flats. But once anglers see a pattern develop on each, they can then focus their search in the most productive portions of a lake. If I were to make an educated guess on where the perch will be located, I’d use speed-fishing techniques to confirm or rebuke my initial guess. I pick out some spots on my GPS to check, with many of the locations first established out of my boat during the guiding season. I always try to plan ahead for ice fishing, even during the summer.

I drill strategically placed holes on the spots most likely to have perch, instead of drilling holes all over the place and make the area look craters on the moon. I’ll fish just enough holes to check out the structure and then move on if nothing is there. Hopefully, I will start hitting fish quickly, especially if my initial assumption of shallow or deep locations is correct.

It’s hard to say how many misses it takes for me to switch to “plan B,” but I’d say it’s just a feeling I get based on what I am seeing on my Humminbird Helix Ice 5. If I see something I can’t catch or see lots of fish and want to see the average size, I’ll drop down my Aqua-Vu camera, because seeing is believing.

I use a Bro Series 30-inch Quick-Tip for jigging with either a smaller Northland Buck Shot Spoon or a new Bro Bling Jig tipped with a minnow head to check the holes for perch. I’ll use a minnow head instead of the whole minnow because perch like to peck and pull on the bait. You need to give them a smaller target to hook more fish. I like to make sure the part of the bait they’re trying to steal has a hook in it.

Once I’ve found an area with good numbers of active perch, I may drill some more holes and fish the area more thoroughly or may leave the area untouched and continue to look for more similar areas to use for guiding locations. Depending on the weather and how many people are fishing with me, I’ll make my setup with a Frabill Bro Hub, if it’s not too windy, or I’ll use a Bro Side-Step house if the weather is really nasty.

The Bro Series Dead Stick is perfect for a second rod in the places where multiple rods are legal during the winter. I use the 28-inch Noodle Rod with backbone and a Bro Band to hold the line on an open bail. I’ll then put it in a rod holder to put down in my second hole.

Live bait on a plain hook, spoons with a dropper rig or tiny tungsten jigs with a single waxworm or euro larvae, are the last resort for finicky perch that won’t hit more aggressive presentations.

   

 Brian “Bro” Brosdahl is a nationally known fishing guide and lead spokesman for many of the top companies in ice fishing.  He can be contacted at [email protected] or through his website at brosguideservice.com. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.