Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The yellow perch is one of the panfish most sought after by anglers, even outranking crappie and bluegills in many areas of the country. The prolific fish is highly valued for both sport and excellent taste, and many prefer the perch to other more-widely acclaimed species such as the walleye.
A glacial-lakes species widely distributed throughout the northern states, the yellow perch has now been stocked in areas of the country outside of its natural range and can be found as far south as South Carolina. Although it can be found across a broad spectrum of geographic locations and water types, it thrives best in cool, clear silt-free natural lakes.
Perch size can vary greatly, depending on location and food supply. Small lakes may have yellow perch fisheries that are overpopulated and stunted; by contrast, large inland lakes and the Great Lakes may have perch exceeding 12 inches in length. Regardless of their size, however, perch can be tons of fun to catch.
Anglers can find success with perch at almost any time of the year. They are an extremely popular species for ice-fishing. The one time of the year during which they’re not easily caught is the spawn; however, the post-spawn period can provide some tremendous action.
Spawning occurs early, usually soon after ice-out. The water-temperature range for spawning is usually between 45 and 52 degrees. After spawning, perch will move back out in the lake and begin schooling. The locations in which this occurs can vary widely, depending on the individual lake.
At small lakes, perch may be found shallow, or as deep as 25 feet; at larger lakes, the fish may move out to depths of 30 feet or more. Most of the year, the perch will remain close to the bottom. However, at certain times they may be suspended at various depths to stay close to a particular food source.
And the food sources acceptable to yellow perch are many. Grubs, worms, insect larvae and other such invertebrates make up a large part of their diet in many lakes. In other areas, the predominant food may be larger forage such as minnows, crayfish, or freshwater shrimp. Adaptive feeders, perch may prey on smaller fish species, leeches, snails, mayflies, aquatic insects, and even zebra mussels.
Anglers must really learn the lake they’re fishing to achieve optimal results. Although perch are usually relatively easy to catch, a certain amount of knowledge and finesse is needed in order to locate the better action. The fish may move around a lot after the spawn, and anglers must spend the time to learn the lake, and stay vigilant to detect the movement patterns of the fish.
Food is the primary need for perch after the spawn; find the food source, and the perch will be there. They’ll often roam as food sources move or change, and anglers will basically need to follow the fish around as they alter their feeding locations.
Fishing techniques for small lakes usually involve locating promising weedbeds. Some of the best vegetation to target will be of the low-growing bottom variety. Perch will often congregate near weedy cover to forage on small fish and invertebrates that inhabit those areas, while in lakes with little or no weed growth, they may relate to other structure such as rocky or irregular bottoms.
The opposite will be true at other lakes. Jason Mitchell, who’s been guiding professionally for nine years, believes that the perch in his area avoid weedy areas after the spawn. He finds that most perch hug the bottom on big mudflats, because, he theorizes, they linger in areas enabling them to see better, which helps them avoid the larger predator fish sharing the lake.
Just after the spawn ends, Mitchell likes to find the warmest water possible to fish. The backs of bays, especially those sheltered from the wind, often warm up first. These warmwater areas will, he says, be the first to attract and to hold fish, and he often finds fish less than 10 feet down.
One of the best techniques for locating perch is to drift-fish with live bait. The right bait will differ depending on location and the food source for perch at the time. Waxworms, red wigglers, or pieces of night crawler are great choices in most small lakes. Around rocky structure, crayfish or crayfish tails may be a better choice.
Most anglers will use a light spinning rig with light line, such as 2- to 4-pound-test. Perch rigs or crappie rigs with two to three hooks are very effective. Anglers should use the smallest weight possible to get the line to the bottom. Tightlining on the bottom or fishing with a slip-bobber are the two primary methods used. A small weight and a sensitive rod tip are very important for detecting the sometimes-delicate strike of the perch.
Drifting will help locate the fish. Some anglers may even use electronics to locate schools of perch. Once the fish are found, anglers can usually stay put and catch numerous fish.
Larger lakes often require a different mindset. After spawning, fish may stay near the shore or may move offshore in water as deep as 30 feet or more. These fish will often move frequently, and are at times much more difficult to locate. Electronics are a plus on the larger lakes.
Techniques for bigger waters are much the same as those for small lakes: Anglers typically drift-fish to locate the perch and then anchor to catch as many from the school as is possible before moving. But bait and equipment usually need to change when fishing bigger waters. Current and depth usually dictate the need to go with a little heavier rod and line, more weight usually being required to hold the bait at the desired level. The bite may still be subtle, however, so anglers should stay as light as is possible. A medium-action rod with 6-pound line is fairly standard at large lakes with a lot of current.
Perch in the larger lakes may have different feeding habits. They tend to grow in size in relation to the water in which they live, so bigger perch will naturally feed on bigger baits, and minnows are the bait of choice for many anglers on the larger waters. It’s very important to know what perch are eating to have the greatest success.
According to fisheries biologist Brian Breidert, anglers must make themselves really aware of water temperature and wind direction when fishing big lakes. He notes that, as perch will seek out areas away from wind and heavy surface disturbance, their location can change daily. The structure that the fish relate to will vary a lot as well, he adds. At big lakes with no weed growth, the fish may be found near rocky bottoms, clay rid
ges, or even eroded pockets on the bottom.
Perch are known primarily as bottom-feeders and will be close to the bottom a good portion of the time. However, they will suspend at certain times of the year, and anglers must pay attention when this happens and alter fishing methods accordingly. Opportunistic feeders that show no reluctance to feeding on mayflies when available, perch may suspend is during the hatch. Live bait is still a smart choice, but at this one time of year, fly-fishing anglers can actually get a little action as well.
Weather isn’t a huge factor in perch fishing success. Sure, a cold front will slow things down at times, but it’s rare that weather completely shuts down the opportunities. Wind plays the biggest factor in limiting success; calm days with low wind are ideal.
Live bait is the most prevalent choice for anglers across the board. However, decent results can be obtained with artificial baits, and some lakes are more prone to offer success with artificial lures than are others. Various jigs and twistertail baits are the most favored, with white and yellow being the colors most used. Other anglers will combine live bait and a spoon or spinner to increase the odds of a bite.
The most important thing to remember when fishing the post-spawn period is to adapt to the particular lake being fished. A new lake may even require a little research on the part of the angler to determine what methods and gear will prove successful there; after all, the appropriateness of a technique for one location doesn’t mean it will yield results everywhere. Perch adapt to their surroundings; anglers must adjust too.
The post-spawn period can be one of the best times of year for targeting yellow perch; they usually school in large numbers, and the catch rate can be extremely high. Learn the nuances of the lake being fished, and diligently track the movements of foraging perch, and you’ll enjoy many rewarding hours on the water — and many great meals at home!