Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 24, 2014

Bob Gwizdz: Seek big water for winter yellow perch

Outdoors columnist

— Yellow perch may not be everyone’s favorite fish for the table, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a preferred species. (Walleye, maybe?) Coming up with a bunch of them for the table this time of the year is another matter.

There are plenty of excellent perch fisheries around, but, in my experience, they are pretty much on big water — Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay, etc. Even most of the better inland perch lakes — Gogebic, Higgins, Crystal, and Burt, come to mind — are sizable ponds.

My fishing buddy Chris Freiburger — who spent part of his formative years in places with notable perch fisheries —Minnesota and S. Dakota, for instance — agrees with me. Inland perch populations tend to get cropped off quickly.

“When they are biting they’re pretty aggressive and they’re highly sought after by anglers, so the big ones can be harvested off pretty easily,” said Freiburger, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who works on habitat issues. “To have a quality fishery, they need room to escape.”

So when Freiburger told me he knew about a mid-Michigan gravel pit that had a pretty fair perch population, well, I was all in.

It was 11 a.m. by the time I’d bought a bucket of minnows and we met up with his buddy Steve Usiak. Not a problem, both said.

“Perch are daytime biters,” Usiak said.

Freiburger agreed.

“It’s a gentleman’s fishing,” said Freiburger. “You don’t have to be out there at first light, you don’t have to be out there late, you can be out there at the warmest part of the day.”

Which we were, though it was hardly picnic weather. It was up in the 20s — comfortable enough — but the north wind was howling. Drill a hole, ignore it a minute, and it was slushed up by blowing snow, stat.

We were on them directly. I hardly had my rods rigged before Freiburger had a handful on the ice.

“Typically, once you find ‘em and you can get them going, they’re cooperative,” Freiburger said. “It’s fast fishing when it’s happening. Hit that school as hard as you can as quickly as you can. It’s that feeding frenzy thing. It’s not going to last forever. They move and they may come back or they may not. When they’re in the hole, make hay, because they’re like kids — if you don’t keep them entertained, they run off.”

Both Freiburger and I were fishing with small jigging spoons (Swedish Pimples) tipped with small minnows. Usiak was fishing with a conventional perch spreader rig — two minnows on separate hooks — about 18 inches apart. We were all catching them, some nice ones and some throwbacks, but we were all getting them in the same place — right near bottom.

That’s the thing about perch. They run the bottom. The only time I’ve caught them much more than foot or so up — and this goes for open water as well as through the ice — is when I was on a large school of them.

“Pound the bottom, that’s my experience,” Freiburger said. “I’ve never caught them very far up in the water column.”

Freiburger said some of the guys he fished with in Minnesota would start the day with a large spoon — like a Dardevle — and bounce if off the bottom a few times before they ever even dropped a bait, just to get the perch attracted to an area.

We fished for a while and the action slowed. We started hole-hopping until we started catching them again, but they were all running small. That’s when the proverbial light bulb in my head popped on.

I switched to a bigger bait — a walleye-sized jigging Rapala — and the first perch I caught was a nine incher. I dropped it back sown the hole and caught a 10. Dropped it back in and caught another keeper.

Freiburger noticed. He switched to a Rap, and the average size of his fish improved commensurately, too.

There’s no mystery there. Bigger baits typically catch bigger fish. Instead of sorting them out on the ice, you’re culling the little guys before you catch ‘em.

We caught fish at a variety of depths, though I seemed to be doing best in areas with some weeds on bottom. That’s not unusual, Freiburger said.

“I like to find that transition zone between hard and soft bottom,” Freiburger said. “You have minnows feeding on the invertebrates in the softer substrate and you’re more likely to find vegetation on the softer material. And the perch eat those invertebrates, too, so, my thought is, if you can find that interface between soft and hard bottom, you can find a diversity of foods.

“If you look at any animal, that transition zone is kind of an efficient place for them to be.”

Perch are not especially picky. Some guys never use anything more than teardrops tipped with insect larvae — wax worms, spike, mousies — and they do well.

“I’ve generally had more success using bigger baits on bigger lakes,” Freiburger said. “It seems to me on smaller lakes, spikes or wigglers are a better bet. But in many cases, I don’t think they’re particular.”

They didn’t seem to be here. We fooled around with spikes and even perch eyes — and caught fish — but, truth be told, once I went to the Rapala every perch I caught hit the ice. I went through some dry spells, but every fish I caught was filet-able. (I’ll file that experience away for the future.)

So is there a moral of the story? To my way of thinking there are two rules for perch fishing: Pound the bottom and, when you catch one, get that bait back down there quickly.