Big Spirit Lake's Perch Explosion

Iowa DNR officials are forecasting the best hardwater perch fishing in the history of Big Spirit Lake this winter. Will you be part of the action? (December 2009)

Iowa Great Lakes guide John Grosvenor admires a perch he caught through the ice at Big Spirit Lake.
Photo courtesy of Dan Anderson.

The word filtered out in late 2008, just before freeze-up, that something was going on. Anglers at Big Spirit Lake in far northwest Iowa were scoring record catches of yellow perch. The bite not only continued through the winter but into the spring and summer of 2009, leaving ice-anglers wondering what they'll find beneath Big Spirit's ice this winter.

"Anglers this winter should have a heck of an opportunity to catch lots of nice perch out of Big Spirit," said Mike Hawkins, a fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Last year, catch rates for perch were the best we've ever seen in all the years we've monitored catch rates. Our statistics indicate that ice-anglers targeting perch averaged 24 (perch) caught per trip, and they harvested (kept) an average of eight per trip.

"The bulk of the perch the guys caught last winter were in the 6- to 7-inch range," said Hawkins. "That's a little small, and there were more released than were harvested. Those 6- to 7-inchers should have put on an inch or more this summer, so there should be a phenomenal population of 8-, maybe 9-inch perch this winter.

"Last year was a record-setting year for perch at Big Spirit. But when you're dealing with Mother Nature, there's never a guarantee things will turn out as you expect, and it's always risky to make predictions in print. But based on angler reports and our netting surveys from last summer, ice-fishing for perch this winter could be the best we've ever seen up here."

PERCH -- WHERE AND HOW
Fisheries biologist Hawkins said his staff joked last winter that the best answer to questions about where to catch perch from Big Spirit was, "Wherever you drill a hole in the ice." He recounted how he took his young son ice-fishing just off the "The Grade" along the north shore of the lake, and they caught perch from a hole over less than 2 feet of water. "The best word to describe the schools of perch is, 'clouds,' " said Hawkins. "You see them on a fish finder and it looks like a cloud filling the screen."

John Grosvenor is a professional fishing guide at the Iowa Great Lakes (712/330-5815, jtg@fishokoboji. com). With three heated ice-fishing shacks at his disposal, he spent a lot of time sampling the spectacular perch fishing on Big Spirit last winter.

"Guys who were willing to keep those 7- to 8-inch perch would limit out in an hour or less on a lot of days," said Grosvenor.

Editor's Note: There is a combined daily bag limit for yellow perch of 25 and possession limit of 50 in Iowa, except where there is no daily or possession limit on the Missouri River. Regulations vary on boundary lakes.

Anglers who venture onto first-ice at Big Spirit traditionally seek and find perch in Anglers Bay in the northeast corner of the lake. The rock reef that stretches between Big Stony Point and Cottonwood Point is a focal point, especially at midpoint in 19 to 21 feet of water. Later in the winter, Big Spirit Lake's perch tend to move into the lake's main basin, where they feed on bloodworms they root out of the muddy bottom.

Grosvenor analyzed feeding habits of perch to find larger-than-average fish for his clients. "Most people were catching those smaller 7-inchers, but a few guys seemed to be taking bigger fish. I checked the stomachs of the small fish and they were full of bloodworms. The bigger fish didn't have as many bloodworms, which told me they were feeding on different things in different places than the smaller fish. So I moved shallower than most of the guys were fishing, up into 14 to 16 feet of water with a harder, rockier bottom where there wasn't mud and bloodworms. I used minnows on a plain old hook and bobber, and I tended to catch larger perch."

Grosvenor noted that those larger perch were fussy about the size of the minnow they accepted: "If I took out a mix of different size minnows and paid attention to what size minnow caught the most perch, I'd always run out of medium-sized minnows first. That may or may not hold true this winter, but it pays to experiment with the size of minnows you use."

Grosvenor agreed with Hawkins that for unknown reasons, perch at Spirit Lake migrate south as winter progresses. "They start toward the north end, then by midwinter they're in the main basin," he explained. "Seems like you can always find them along the west side off Buffalo Run all the way down to Templar Park. There are perch all over the lake, but the best late-winter fishing seems to be toward the south."

While Grosvenor took lots of bigger perch on a simple hook and minnow below a bobber, and like many anglers in the Iowa Great Lakes region, he is fond of "Pilke"-style ice jigs.

"They don't actually make the genuine Pilke jigs any more, but Charlie Shuck over at Shuck's Bait House makes a 'Shuck's Jigger' that's pretty much the same idea," Grosvenor said. "It's a heavy, flashy lure with a hook suspended below the lure on a small beaded chain. The flashy lure attracts the fish, and they really go after whatever bait you've got on the hook suspended below."

Grosvenor said the key to success with a Shuck's Jigger or any other perch presentation is to keep the bait within one inch of the bottom. Since perch in winter are feeding heavily on bloodworms and other invertebrates, baits more than a foot off the bottom are often ignored.

"Guys talk about catching perch that were suspended 6 feet off the bottom," said Grosvenor. "Truth be known, they were probably pulling fish off the top of one of those huge schools, and there were even more perch closer to the bottom. In my experience, 1 inch off the bottom is the optimum place for a perch bait. I tell my clients to drop the rig till they definitely feel bottom, then carefully reel it up until the bait is just brushing the bottom, then let it hang there."

Many anglers jig their baits at varying rates. Grosvenor prefers a slow, methodical presentation. His theory is that cold water slows the metabolism of fish during winter, slowing their behaviors and altering their bait preferences.

"Winter fish don't eat as much or eat as big (as summer fish)," he said. "If I jig my baits at all, it's with slow movements. And I tend to keep my baits small, unless I see a distinct preference for medium-size minnows like I did last winter."

Clients are sometimes

puzzled when Grosvenor lowers a heavy downrigger ball through the ice on a stout line, and bounces it up and down on the bottom a few times.

"If things are slow, I'll sometimes use the downrigger ball to stir up mud on the bottom," he explained. "My theory is that perch are used to feeding on bloodworms in the mud, and when they see some silt or mud stirred up, they think other fish have found a bunch of food, are on a feeding spree, and will move into the area to see what's going on. Bouncing that downrigger ball has put a lot of perch on the ice for me."

MOVE TO CATCH MORE
Grosvenor refuses to sit on a hole that isn't producing fish. He believes schools of perch move constantly and accepts if "hot" holes temporarily "cool off." "As long as a school moves through the area every 10 or 15 minutes and you're catching fish consistently while they're in the area, I'd sit and wait out the cool spells between schools," he said. "But if you've only pulled in four, five, maybe six fish in an hour, it's time to move and drill some more holes."

Where to drill holes for best results is both easy and difficult. Simply following the crowd and drilling holes near or among clusters of ice huts almost guarantees perch. But pioneering new territory often offers larger fish or better catch rates.

"I caught bigger fish last winter by fishing away from the crowd but in the same general area," said Grosvenor. "I had a friend who fished away from the crowds at Buffalo Run last winter, tended to drill his holes closer to Templar, and his perch averaged an inch or more larger than what everybody else was catching the same day."

Grosvenor paused and chuckled, "I don't want to give away all my secrets and really don't like people following me around, but anytime you see an ice hut sitting off all by itself all day, you can figure the guy found a good spot, otherwise he'd move. And if you see the same guy in the same spot day after day, there's a reason he's not moving.

"The way things are right now for perch at Big Spirit," said Grosvenor, "you just about can't go wrong drilling anywhere close to where everybody else is fishing. But I'd sure fish the edges of that crowd, or experiment with fishing shallower or deeper, to see if there aren't bigger fish the other guys are overlooking."

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