By Cody Roswick
The yellow perch (Perca flavescens), one of the Dakota’s most abundant fish species, growing to table fare size, cooperative in winter months and responsible for countless fish dinners.
The Dakotas are blessed with good numbers of yellow perch, liberal limits, and many large and small bodies of water that receive mostly weekend “winter” fishing pressure. It’s a tremendous natural resource and I have three fishing tips that can help you put more perch on the ice.
I’m not a biologist, but I do know a few things about the yellow perch as a veteran perch angler and winter fishing guide. They are considered panfish, they are prolific and have large hatches when optimal conditions exist. Perch grow to a cleanable size of 9-15” with abundant food supplies, and are found in large schools. North and South Dakota are blessed with these resources and a very cooperative Game and Fish Department that further facilitates the abundance of the yellow perch for several reasons.
They are a prey species for game fish such as walleye, northern pike, and bass. Perch provides excellent recreation and thrives in the fertile, food-rich waters of the Dakotas. Yellow Perch have a fairly short life expectancy of approximately 6 years in the Dakotas, relative to their cousins the walleye, which may-be 20 years or more. Meaning – if they are treated as a replenishable resource; you may utilize them for recreation and food because their adult life is fairly short. This explains the reason why some lakes have an adult perch boom on occasion and larger lakes are more consistent. Mother Nature is complex, and there are many variables, but the fact is yellow perch have a much shorter life span than larger game fish, and anglers can enjoy the good fishing and tasty fillets while they last.
Central and eastern Dakotas are where these notable perch waters exist and the higher than average water table is to blame for more habitat and robust populations. Notable waters like Devils Lake and Stump Lake in central North Dakota are predicting good perch populations for the winter of 2019/2020. With literally hundreds of small to medium-size lakes to explore, there is a great opportunity!
Tip #1 – Fish 15 minutes to see if some fish are in the vicinity.
I spend time fishing perch all over the Dakotas, with the majority in the Devils Lake/Stump Lake basin. Finding fish takes practice and time. Hiring a reputable fishing guide for a few days is a great option. When searching for winter perch in the Dakotas, weed lines, shallow flats, and brushy wood areas can be good early in the season. Sharp breaks, main lake basins, basin areas with changes in bottom substrate, and subtle secondary points hold perch and are consistently productive in mid to late season. It’s a process of drilling lots of holes, covering water, paying attention to details like water clarity, food sources, and time with your lure in the water. All these locations are worth more time and explanation, but drilling holes in likely locations, fishing for 15 minutes or so, usually allows some fish to appear on your electronics. Then, I suggest some short moves, see if you can pinpoint an active school of perch. The search can be time-consuming, but very rewarding!
Tip #2 – Equipment
Several items of equipment I recommend for your Dakota perch adventure that will keep you more efficient and make the most of your experience is sharp ice auger blades, good electronics, lures that sink fast, and pliers in your pocket. Many times I start my day looking for an active school of perch. When found, it may only last for 15-20 minutes and a few fish. Then I need to make a move and drill more holes looking for signs of life.
This is where sharp ice auger blades and good electronics play an important role. We all know good equipment makes you more efficient and eager to work harder with less effort. Sharp blades make that difference. A sore back can shorten the effort. Good electronics that show the depth reading, presence of fish, and help you decipher the mood of the fish present. This helps determine whether to stay after them or continue the search for more active fish. It is something you need to experience to better understand, but winter perch can be very lethargic and unwilling to move far to examine your offering. Certain times of day, weather changes, and numbers of competitive fish can all affect their willingness to bite. Seeing this lethargic behavior on your electronics helps you determine the process of moving to another hole, another area, or coming back at a later time.
Electronics are valuable tools to determine these things and I recommend you purchase what you can afford. The electronics today, help determine much more than depth. Lastly, when you do find some active perch in water that’s deeper than 10 feet, I recommend a heavier lure like a 1/8oz spoon or 1/16oz. Tungsten Jig. Not too big, because we are talking about ¾ to 1.5-pound fish here. A heavier hydrodynamic lure gets your presentation down fast when the fish are active and competitive. Unhooking the fish fast, hence the pliers in your pocket and deploying your bait fast will keep the school of perch active and you will catch more fish this way. Keep the bites going deploying your presentation fast after each fish and you’ll likely catch more than just a few. My personal favorite is a 1/16oz. or 1/8oz. Northland Tackle buckshot rattle spoon or a 1/16oz tungsten jig with bait. Perch are not too fussy about the tackle when they are active, but at times, one particular shape, size, color, and dressing can catch them all! They are curious creatures and keeping them competitive for your lure is fun and a challenge at times. The days when perch chew anything that swims are fairly rare, but cherished when it happens.
Tip #3 – Fish well above the bottom! Do it!
In order to attract more fish to your hole and see more fish consistently in deeper water, I recommend keeping your bait 12-20 inches off the bottom while jigging or dead sticking. I’m serious! I preach it all winter long and I consistently see it attract more fish to my hole by fishing a foot or higher off the bottom. Fishing too close to the bottom you miss seeing some fish that are belly hugging and lethargic. It is an area that perch and walleyes are the most comfortable, and they may not bite your bait. By forcing them up a foot or more, you will get more bites and take them out of their comfort zone, forcing some action. It “calls” more fish from a distance and makes a big difference in the amount of action you’ll get fishing for perch, walleyes, or northern pike.
Of course, there is always an exception and pounding your bait on the bottom to stir up some sediment briefly at times is effective at perking a fish’s curiosity. Try this when action is slow. Keeping your bait off the bottom is increasingly more important in water 15 ft. or deeper, and makes detecting a fish on sonar much easier. That in itself is very helpful and you may determine the fishes’ mood as more aggressive or sluggish, which allows you to experiment with soft jigging strokes or be more aggressive, playing keep away. You’ll be surprised how this little tip can help you get a few more bites! Experiment and you’ll find what works.
Give the effort to be more efficient, travel light, maximize your time, and don’t worry about the wrong things while chasing Dakota perch. Be safe and take the time to learn new water, new areas, techniques, and don’t be afraid to explore the unexplored! Use these three tips to make your perch fishing more efficient and enjoy the tremendous resource we share for Dakota Winter Perch!