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Fishing for Yellow Perch
By Dick McWilliams, Fisheries Research Biologist, Iowa DNR
Yellow perch or, as they are most commonly called, perch or ringed-perch do not rank high among the "battlers" in the fish world, although they will put up a fight equal to most fish of similar, small size. Nor are they highly regarded for their trophy-size, with 7- to 9-inch fish most commonly caught -- 10-inch or larger fish are referred to as a "jumbos." However, once on a feeding binge perch provide some mighty fast and furious fishing with catches of 10 to 15 fish in as many minutes the rule rather than the exception. Perch are probably best known as an esteemed table fish. A freshly caught stringer of perch, fried to a golden-brown, is unsurpassed in flavor and a meal second to none!
Where to Find Them
Perch range throughout the waters of Iowa, although largest populations and consequently the best fishing are concentrated in the natural lakes and to a lesser extent in the northern portions of the Mississippi River. By far the best perch fishing is found in Clear Lake, Spirit Lake, East and West Lakes Okoboji, and Silver Lake. An additional number of smaller lakes, including some of the winterkill lakes, also produce excellent perch fishing on occasion, particularly following a mild and open winter. Some man-made lakes have abundant perch populations, but they are usually too small sized to hold much interest for anglers.
For anglers unfamiliar with natural lake contours, one method for locating likely fishing places is with a topographic map. These are available on the Iowa DNR website, many GPs/sonar combination systems, and on paper in many local bait shops and fishing tackle stores. Look for locations where bottom contours change and there is an abundance of underwater structure. Another simple method for finding these hotspots is to watch for large concentrations of fishing boats-a sure sign of excellent fishing.
Perch fishing in Iowa can be separated into two major seasons -- open water and ice fishing. In the natural lakes, the best fishing traditionally occurs from late summer until late fall and again in December and January during the ice fishing season. Late spring and early summer rank as mediocre, and a fisherman that can consistently catch perch in mid-summer can catch fish at any time and should be envied.
Although most anglers agree on the best time of year for fishing perch, there is far less agreement on the best time of day. Perch feed by sight and need light to locate prey. Thus, they commence foraging only after sunlight penetrates the water depths. They may feed off and on throughout the day, but usually there are pronounced periods of foraging activity once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As night approaches the schools disperse and the fish are inactive until the following morning. As a result, perch are rarely caught at night.
The best time of day for catching perch can change abruptly on any day, although the rule of thumb seems to be that perch fishing corresponds with intense activity periods, and it is best in early morning or evening hours during late spring and early summer and late afternoon or evening periods during late summer. In autumn, both morning and late afternoon-evening periods provide excellent fishing. Under the ice and in low light the late afternoon-evening is usually productive; however, in West Lake Okoboji, fishing is often excellent from mid-morning to noon.
The vast majority of the successful perch anglers fish from boats during the open water season for two important reasons; fish location and fisherman mobility. Perch are found mostly in deeper water during much of the year, and as a result they are difficult to locate without a boat. In addition a major key for successful perch fishing is mobility, and a boat provides an easy means of seeking out fish by trying different locations.
Shore or dock fishing is good at times, particularly during spring and early summer. Perch congregate around bottom structures, such as rock piles, reefs, along the lee side of land points, beds of submergent aquatic vegetation, and bottom drop-offs. In late spring and early summer they are often found in water 10 to 20 feet deep, still near the bottom. One technique often used to locate perch during this time is to drift or troll until a school is located, then anchor and still fish or cast.
The mid-summer period in most lakes finds perch inhabiting the outside edge or pockets of submergent vegetation in 10 to 15 feet of depth. An exception is in the deeper lakes that stratify, like West Lake Okobiji, where larger perch display an affinity for cooler water strata at a depth where the thermocline intercepts the bottom, usually at 30 to 40 feet. Either a topographic map or electronic depth finder are helpful at this time.
As autumn progresses, the perch again locate in 10 to 20 feet of water and most ofetn are found around some type of bottom structure. The major exception is in the deeper lakes that stratify, like West Okoboji Lake again, where perch move into the deeper and warmer water strata. It is quite common to find perch in 40 to 50 feet of water in this lake during late fall. In winter, as in autumn, perch remain in the deeper water. But in contrast to the other seasons, perch are found many times over the large, featureless sand and silt flats in mid-lake.
Perch fishing does not require an extensive nor expensive array of fishing tackle or gear. For open water fishing, most anglers use basic rod-reel combinations, although light tackle is the most popular. The type and quality of the rod is largely a matter of personal preference. For trolling or drift fishing, a somewhat stiffer rod of 6 to 6 1/2 feet in length with a medium to fast tip is one of the better choices. For jig fishing or casting, lighter rods, 5 to 5 1/2 feet in length, are preferable.
Perch are notorious bait robbers, and a fast action rod tip is superior for detecting subtle bites. Fly rods remain the mainstay of some perch fishermen, although their popularity has declined with the advent of light spinning and spin-casting rods.
Reels, like rods, come in a wide variety of styles, brands and sizes. Choose the one that fits your needs best. Open and closed-face spinning reels, in ultra-light or medium sizes are the most common and are satisfactory for most perch fishing. There is an exception to this choice: if the reel is used extensively for casting small lures, the better quality reel is superior in performance and durability.
Monofilament line should be your choice for perch fishing. As a rule of thumb, use the lightest line possible for the type of fishing you are doing. Lighter lines allow for the sensitive touch or feel, which is particularly useful when perch bite softly. For trolling or drift fishing, 4 to 8 pound-test line, depending upon lure size, is adequate. For still fishing or casting, 4 to 6 pound-test line is preferred by many perch fishermen, and 2 pound-test line is the choice with the smallest lures.
Most perch fishermen switch to short ice fishing rods in winter. These rods, no more than 3 feet in length, come in two basic styles; those fitted with a standard reel and the other with a short piece of fiberglass rod and a handle with pegs for wrapping the line. Tip-ups are also used by many fishermen during the winter season. Depending upon angler experience and the type of tackle used, heavier test line is better for ice fishing. Lighter lines allow a more sensitive touch, but at the same time they may weaken or break after being abraded by rough ice or frozen in the rod guides.
For those anglers that prefer to fish for perch with artificial lures, the choice is as varied as it is with any fishing. Lures that are commonly used for perch include many of the same type used for the other panfishes. Small lures are best because perch have relatively small mouths and show little interest in a lure that is too large.
One of the most popular types is a leadhead. These lures are made in an infinite variety of sizes and colors, but the one sixty-fourth and one thirty-second ounce sizes are most popular. Leadheads have a number of different names, depending upon whether they are tied with feathers, hair, skirted with a plastic lure, or chenille wrapped. Of this group, the skirted leadhead, often called a mini-jig, is one of the most effective. Skirts for leadheads are made of soft plastic and threaded directly through the hook, so the hook shank is completely covered. Yellow, white, and a combination yellow-white skirts seem to be the most effective in our natural lakes. However, no perch fisherman can guarantee these will catch fish since they can be very particular about which lure they strike, and at almost any time might choose a lure with a red-white, purple, green, or some other colored skirt. A Minnesota tear drop is one of the favorite lures used during the open water season. It is made in a variety of colors, but silver, orange, and chartreuse seem to work best. These small lures are generally still fished or casted.
For trolling or drift fishing, heavier leadheads up to one-eighth ounce are best, although slip-sinker lures or a small spinner rig, are becoming more common. Floating jigheads are excellent lures either with a slip-sinker rig or with a fixed sinker or three-way bottom walker set-up. The advantage of using a floating lure arrangement is that by changing line length between the weight and lure, the lure can be set to suspend at various distances above the bottom. Consequently, the lure will not snag on rocks or vegetation as easily.
During autumn and throughout the winter small, metal jigging spoons, in one thirty-second or one-eighth ounce size, are the choice of many anglers. For ease in baiting and handling fish the treble hook is usually replaced with a single, 6 or 8 sized long or short shanked hook. A simple method of converting to a single hook is to cut two barbs from the treble hook. Drop hooks, which are made by tying a short piece of line between the hook and lure on these spoons, can sometimes help trigger some action. Lures are generally tied directly to the line, except when using slip-sinkers or bottom-walkers since the objective is to present the "right" size bait to the perch.
When anglers fish in or around submerged vegetation, or while they are dock or shore fishing, bobbers or slip-bobbers are useful for keeping the bait in the proper position. Perch are known for their ability to strip bait from a hook without pulling the bobber under or otherwise indicating there is a bite, so a small bobber is recommended.
Live bait is one of the stand-bys for perch fishing. The type of bait, like the type of lure, depends mostly on personal preference, although fishing style, fisherman experience, and season often deserve close consideration. Two effective and popular year-round live baits are small minnows and insect larvae. Minnows are the favorite bait while trolling or drift fishing with spinner rigs and three-way rigs using leadheads or other jigheads. Small minnows are also effective while still fishing in late autumn and winter. Nightcrawlers and small fish worms, although not as popular with anglers as minnows, are also effective at times while drift fishing or trolling, and they are usually rigged with a stinger or trailer hook. Insect larvae, mainly silver wigglers or maggots, are the most widely used bait in the natural lakes for perch.
Several other types of baits are also used by fishermen during certain periods, although they are not as well known. These include wax worms, mousees and a variety of grubs. All of these baits have the advantage of long shelf life compared to wigglers, which need to be stored where it is cool. Crayfish meat is an excellent perch bait, particularly during the mid- and late summer months. The meat is extracted by splitting the tail and rolling the flesh out with the thumb. Perch eyes are a standard bait and are used primarily in autumn and winter. The disadvantage of the cut baits is that they are often unavailable. The best way to assure a reliable supply is to freeze small quantities in individual plastic bags. For perch eyes, freeze 6 or 8 along the bottom of a plastic bag like a string of beads. This way individual eyes can be taken out without having to thaw an entire package.
The most important part of becoming a successful perch angler is to learn to adjust and be flexible to different techniques, constantly vary the way in which the bait is presented until you catch perch, and become knowledgeable in perch behavior and location during different seasons of the year. Luckily, perch are less affected by changing weather patterns than most fish species, and they are often found in the same locations before and after changes in the weather. In spite of the type of lure, bait, or type of gear, success is often a matter of how well the bait is presented to the fish. Perch orient toward the bottom, and for any bait or lure to be effective it is essential that it is fished on or near the bottom. When perch are located, fishing may be slow at first, but most often action is fast and furious as schools of perch move through while feeding. When this happens, land each fish as quickly as possible and put the bait back down, because the next perch is waiting to strike. A strike may occur as the bait drops, but most often it occurs just as the bait is lifted off the bottom -- so be ready.
When fishing is slow, vary your techniques before moving to another spot, and be willing to try almost any trick. For example, if jigging produced good fishing and it suddenly slows, try casting in a circle around the boat. Remember to let the bait hit bottom before reeling in. If a strike occurs -- land the fish slowly. The flashing action of the fighting fish appears to draw other perch back into the vicinity. As action increases, land fish more quickly and get the bait back down.
Some methods for trying to trigger perch to bite seem to go against traditional fishing methods. When fishing in shallow water for instance, swishing a rod back and forth in the water will often attract perch and trigger some action. Running the boat motor, even while anchored, also can have some positive results, with the noise appearing to attract perch. Some anglers tie brightly colored flags to their anchor ropes to attract perch. If there's still no action after 15 or 20 minutes, move to a different location and try again. Perch usually need no invitation to bite, and once located they will provide plenty of fast action like few other fish.
*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.