Yellow perch are among the most targeted panfish species, pursued by anglers for their abundance, for their generally aggressive feeding tendencies, and for their performance on the table. Like their close cousins, walleye and sauger, yellow perch make predictable movements in early spring that correlate with their annual reproductive cycles. These movements, and the feeding windows associated with them, provide savvy anglers with opportunities for fast action from some of the largest fish in the system, as well as a chance to harvest a few fish for the pan. Early season perch movements differ between lake and river environments, as do the techniques employed to catch them. In this article, I’ll describe how I use Humminbird Side Imaging to follow portly perch as they move towards their spawning grounds, and also how I target pre- and post-spawn perch in lakes and rivers using both live and artificial baits.
Finding pre-spawn perch on natural lakes is easiest during the 7-10 days immediately following ice-out. During this window, perch that spent the winter scattered over deep lake basins will school in large numbers, prior to making their way to shallow, warming spawning grounds. With lake water temperatures still in the 40s, these schools will hold along the primary breaks that lead from the shallows to the basins, and are easy to identify using Humminbird Side Imaging.
For example, the Side Imaging screen capture shown here reveals 4 groups of pre-spawn perch (big collections of white returns in center of image), holding along a break that transitions from 10-12 feet (at the top) to 16-18 feet (towards the bottom of the image). Note that these schools are located right on the break, not in the shallows and not in the basin; they are in a holding pattern. Perch in pre-spawn holding patterns often require some “convincing” to get them to consider feeding.
My primary approach is to park on top of these schools using the Spot Lock function of my Minn Kota i-Pilot/Terrova 101 combo, and evoke strikes using subtle, vertical jigging presentations. In depths of 20 feet or less, I will rig a Trigger X walleye paddletail on a 1/4 oz VMC Neon Moon Eye jig, and hover the jig just off the bottom in the middle of the school of perch. Subtle wave action or boat movements are enough to activate the lively tail of this advanced soft plastic bait, eliciting bites from holding pattern perch. If this approach fails, I will fish these perch like I was doing in the weeks prior, when ice still covered the basin: with a 1/8 oz jigging spoon tipped with a handful of waxies or spikes. Yes, neutral or negative fish in early spring will often happily eat an ice fishing presentation!
Unlike their cousins in lakes, river perch in the mood for love are often found in large concentrations in shallow water, typically associated with obstructions to upstream movement. These obstructions might be dams on large rivers, or small waterfalls or extensive riffles on smaller rivers or streams. Shallow areas with reduced current flow near these obstructions will often hold pre- and post-spawn perch, particularly when other cover such as rocks or wood are also present. Another difference between lake and river perch is their general disposition towards feeding during the pre-spawn period; I find river perch to be very aggressive feeders, likely because of the energy expenditures required to fight the heavy river flows of spring.
Given the choice between spring perching on a lake or on a river, I will choose a trip for river perch every time. Sweeping a Trigger X paddletail rigged on a VMC Neon Moon Eye jig through these reduced current areas has put many pre-spawn river perch in my boat. Picking the correct weight of jig is critical to ensuring that your jig stays near the bottom, in the perch strike zone, and not coasting above their heads or being lost in the rocks or timber. Small rivers often put these perch holding areas within easy reach of shore-bound anglers. These are great opportunities to provide kids with their first fish-catching experiences of the new season. For young anglers in search of fast action, it’s tough to beat a chunk of nightcrawler rigged on an Aberdeen hook, about 18 inches below a couple of split shot to get the bait down into the perch zone. Set the hook at the first indication of a strike to avoid hooking these perch too deeply.
The warming water temperatures of spring pull many species of fish into shallow water to feed, reproduce, or both. Pre- and post-spawn yellow perch provide excellent angling opportunities in the spring. With help from Humminbird Side Imaging fishing systems to find these portly perch, and tackle from Trigger X and VMC to tempt them, you’ll be well positioned for successful spring perchin’!
Dr. Jason Halfen is a multi-species guide and teaching pro based in western Wisconsin. For more information, visit www.JasonHalfenOutdoors.com.