December 29, 2023
While Idaho's Lake Cascade has attracted ice anglers in recent years with its outlandish yellow perch, ample Midwestern waters are teeming with giant specimens, too. These run the gamut from big, natural inland lakes to Great Lakes bays and estuaries to highly fertile waters throughout the Great Plains. If you're willing to hit the road, chances are one isn't too far from home.
MULLETT AND BURT LAKES
Recent Master Angler entries show most of Michigan's biggest perch inhabit both large inland lakes in the northern lower peninsula and bays of the Great Lakes. Tim Cwalinski, the Michigan DNR's northern Lake Huron manager, says a lake's size, available food and the amount of predation by larger species all affect its ability to produce jumbo perch. Bigger, deeper waterbodies, he says, offer some protection against overharvest and give perch a place to go in summer when temperatures warm.
Mullett and Burt lakes produce colossal perch. The 17,120-acre Burt Lake has depths greater than 50 feet, while 16,630-acre Mullett Lake reaches down to 140 feet. Both have abundant, prime habitat—rock piles and sparse weeds that hide forage and provide spawning habitat—and strong year classes of perch.
Guide Andrew Hendrickson of Northstar Fishing Adventures targets giant Mullett Lake yellowbellies through the ice (he also guides on Saginaw Bay, another fantastic perch fishery). He has clients jig in shelters and then deploys tip-ups to increase his search area. He baits the tip-ups with large shiners more suitable for walleyes, which also tempt hefty perch. If a flag goes off and no one's home, it's likely a perch fooling with the bait. Hendrickson quickly pulls the tip-up and drops down a Custom Jigs and Spins Checkai Tungsten Ice Jig with a minnow. Usually, perch are still there, and Hendrickson or his client can pluck a few jumbos from the school.
The guide employs similar tactics inside shanties. Clients jig with Rotating Power Minnows, Swedish Pimples and similar lures up to 10 feet off bottom to attract schools of perch. Fish are likelier to see lures farther off the bottom in the ultra-clear water. Once a school appears on the graph, live baits on jigs seal the deal. Rotund, tiger-striped specimens between 13 and 15 inches are typical, and 17-inch giants aren't impossible. The tactic works wherever perch are found in deep water through the ice and open water.
- Alternative Options: Saginaw Bay's burgeoning walleye population is limiting perch numbers, but those that remain are sizeable, with jumbos caught annually from Au Gres around the bay to Sebewaing. The bay's leviathan perch invade cuts and coves in fall to chase shiners, and they're still there at first ice. As ice thickens, schools move to weed edges in 12 to 14 feet of water. Jigging spoons are a solid choice.
"It's been 30 years since Green Bay has had a really good perch fishery," says Freshwater Fishing Hall of Famer and fishing guide Dale Stroschein (wackywalleye.com). "But it's coming back. Lots of guys are targeting them now."
He suggests the initial decline was likely due to overharvesting from commercial fishermen, ice anglers, and cormorants and white pelicans. The veteran angler thinks perch numbers are now high enough to start targeting them again, though finding them may not be so easy.
"Green Bay is intimidating and complex, and the bait is constantly moving, so the perch schools are hard to pinpoint," Stroschein says.
He adds that Little Sturgeon Bay and the Sturgeon Bay Channel are good starting points, though he also likes the stretch from Point Comfort north to Red River County Park in 12 to 16 feet of water. Mudflats off Wave Point Marina are worth exploring, too. Here, 14- to 16-inch yellowbellies don't raise many eyebrows.
You can find good ice and fishing on Green Bay's west shore in Dead Horse Bay and off Long Tail Point near Suamico, too. And shanty towns also develop off the mouth of the Fox River every winter. Stroschein says Green Bay ice anglers use waxworms or minnows pinned to jigging spoons and teardrops, but he adds that Hali jigs are also popular.
- Alternative Options: Pat Kalmerton of Wolf Pack Adventures (wolfpackadventures.com) says Lake Winnebago has fantastic winter perch fishing, despite it being poor just a few short years ago. On Winnie, 10- to 12-inch perch are typical now, with a 1 1/2-pounder even possible. Good ice is usually around by late December to early January, and the area north of Stockbridge often produces outstanding first-ice catches. In mid-winter, mudflats on the lake's east side are good for roving perch, while rocky reefs along the western shoreline shine (especially for big fish) as spawning nears in March.
MILLE LACS LAKE
Many Minnesota lakes yield a jumbo perch or two. Still, for numbers, ice-fishing authority Brian "Bro" Brosdahl suggests bigger bodies of water.
"Two years ago, I wouldn't have said Mille Lacs Lake," Brosdahl admits, "but the perch have really come on in recent years. I kind of attribute that to the lower numbers of walleyes."
Bro says there are oodles of 11-inch perch in Mille Lacs, and 13- to 14-inch jumbos are common. He suggests fish relate to mudflats, gravel bars and mid-lake structures that produce lots of insects. The ice veteran targets 13 to 20 feet of water along edges and rock bars in 27 to 32 feet that he finds with his LakeMaster maps. Mid- to late winter often produces the best action.
Many lures work, but Brosdahl loves a small Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon in glow and electric perch colors. A Bro Bug Spoon can be hot, too. He tips both with waxworms. Tutt's Bait & Tackle (tuttsbaitandtackle.com) is a good source for info and bait.
- Alternative Options: Brosdahl also recommends Leech and Big Stone lakes. On sprawling Leech Lake, he sets up in a good spot, relies on electronics and waits for roaming perch to come through, but if this fails, he'll start drilling holes to find them. He likes 14- to 16-foot depths but says fish can be found as shallow as 8 to 10 feet. Bait wise, for jumbos he recommends larger 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons and concentrating on clearings in weed flats. Flat and shallow, Big Stone Lake occasionally produces giant perch, but Brosdahl says most are 9 to 11 1/2 inches. He suggests most perch are in 12 to 15 feet of water and will fall to a Mud Bug jig with a couple of maggots or spikes pinned to the hook. Here, he says, following the crowds can be a productive way to find the fish.
"Last winter was the best perch fishing on Devils Lake in 20 years," says Jason Mitchell, a TV personality and former guide. "In past years, perch populations have ebbed and flowed on Devils Lake, but with consistent water levels, outstanding habitat and a predator population that has impacted the perch population, there are fewer perch but bigger perch. I saw more perch over 2 pounds last year than in the past 20 years."
He suggests the best locations on this massive lake in North Dakota change each year, but East Bay and the bays within Pelican Bay were solid last year. Finding areas where soft and hard bottoms meet, at depths of 20 to 40 feet, is key, he says, as that's a transition line perch normally relate to.
Mitchell says small Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, Hali jigs and tungsten jigs all work well with larva. Perch feed heavily on freshwater shrimp, and often a dead stick with bait is the best medicine. A great Devils Lake guide option is Perch Patrol Guide Service (perchpatrol.com).
- Alternative Options: Moving down into South Dakota, Mitchell also highly rates the boom-or-bust perch lakes in the eastern Glacial Lakes region. He suggests researching recent stocking reports and Internet posts to discover the hot lakes. In this same region, Bitter and Waubay are two larger waters that consistently produce perch. Ever since it was created by the inundation of water in northeastern South Dakota in the 1990s, Bitter Lake has produced giant perch, including the 2-pound, 13-ounce state-record perch in 2015. Bitter's winter perch relate heavily to scattered weed beds in the central basin. Like Bitter, Waubay Lake—actually a chain of lakes—has ample invertebrate forage and offers solid fishing, but it doesn't produce the number of trophy yellowbellies that Bitter does.