While Northern Michigan folks fish for perch in every season, there is no season like winter for really getting after them.
In terms of ice fishing, the tasty little yellow-bellies probably attract more attention than any other fish.
Perch fish are found in many of our waters and there is a definite correlation between the size of the body of the water and the quality of the perch fishing. Lake Michigan and the bays and inlets thus have the best perch fishing, when there is safe ice available. Next best are the larger inland lakes and that includes Crystal Lake, Lake Charlevoix, and, farther north, Burt Lake and Black Lake.
The Lake Michigan waters are usually not available until late winter, starting perhaps in January, but, if this turns out to be a real winter, that could be earlier. If so, anglers will be out on the Grand Traverse Bays, on the ice at Harbor Springs, on Little Traverse Bay, and on Lake Leelanau. When there is safe ice, Sturgeon Bay is one of the best spots imaginable for big perch and lots of them. There are also perch to be caught in many of the smaller inland lakes and some of those, of course, will have ice before Christmas. Many are frozen now and they should have safe ice very shortly.
Catching perch in the winter is often just a matter of finding them. They usually cooperate and they aren’t time-sensitive, like walleyes. In other words, if you can find them, you can catch them, even at high noon on a bright day. You may find them where they were in the fall and where you usually spot them in the spring but they are more apt to be in a little deeper water.
Many anglers use a fish-finding graph to spot them but the more common tactic is to just go out over water that has been productive in the past and start augering holes, moving from hole to hole until the fish are located in reasonable numbers.
When the fishing is good, anglers can often camp out in a given spot and catch perch until they have enough for dinner. Characteristically, the perch will move in and out of a given spot, with bites on everything for a few minutes and then no bites at all for a few more minutes but the fish generally return with their mouths open.
The standard tackle for winter perch is the “perch rig”, often sold as a “crappie rig”, an affair with a big sinker on the bottom and two hooks on snells.
Since the commercial rigs are often poorly made with improper hooks, it is usually a good idea to make your own, some evening in front of the wood stove. Start with about 18 inches of 12-pound test mono and tie a small swivel on one end. Tie a half-ounce dipsy sinker on the other end. Using some of those little nylon line-leader connecters, add a couple of snelled hooks. Be sure to use snells made of rather heavy mono so they will stick out from the main leader and not tangle readily.
Choose snells with long-shank number eight hooks and you might even want to go to a number six. The long-shank hooks are easier to bait and easier to remove from fish. With the line-leader connectors, you can put the hooks exactly where you want them and move them readily if necessary. If you put the bottom hook about 10 inches off the bottom and the top hook six inches higher, that should do for starters. If you make up several perch rigs and put each in a separate little zipper plastic bag, you should be set for at least a couple of outings.
When fishing, suspend the baited perch rig from a light rod. One of those with the built-in support is great for this fishing. You can watch the rod tip for signs of a bite or add one of those little “spring bobbers” to the rod tip to indicate a “take”.
The standard ice-fishing bait is a small minnow but wigglers will also work. It is often a good idea to offer one of each until they fish make their preference known. Wigglers will often produce more bites but minnows often attract larger fish. While most anglers use rather small minnows, sold as “perch minnows”, the larger sizes sold for walleyes and trout will take perch too and larger perch as well.
A good alternative to the perch rig, for those times when the fish are rather finicky, is a light bobber rig, suspending the minnow or wiggler just off the bottom and using a very small bobber to indicate strikes.
Jigging will also take perch and, when the fish are relatively active, it can be the very best way to fill a bucket. Use one of those slim jigs, such as a Swedish Pimple, selecting one just over an inch long and make sure those hooks are sharp. Add the head half of a small minnow to the jig and it will take perch. It is important to work the jig a bit, to attract fish but be sure to let it rest often because that is when the perch generally grab it.
On occasion, the perch will only take the jig when it is at rest. If you have the perch located, it is often a good idea to auger two holes close together so you can fish a perch rig or a bobber rig in one and jig in the other. You may find that the jigging attracts perch that will then hit your live bait or vice versa.
The best part of winter perch fishing, of course, it at the end of the day when those little fillets hit the canola oil. When it comes to eating, there is nothing that comes with fins that is even close to the tasty yellow perch.