By Dan Johnson

Targeting supersize yellow perch on big-water fisheries is often considered a late-winter game. But the truth is, schools of hungry jumbos roam relatively shallow water on large natural lakes across the Ice Belt, offering consistent action for pot-bellied perch requiring little of the finesse often needed later in the season.

“Early winter can produce great perch fishing,” says veteran Northwoods guide Jeff Sundin, whose favorite perching grounds include big-water standouts such as Minnesota’s famed Winnibigoshish and Leech lakes. “The fish are feeding heavily. Because they’re aggressive and haven’t been picked on all winter by other anglers, they’re often relatively easy to catch once you find them.”

Indeed, location is key. While finding pods of plump perch prowling beneath the thickening icepack on lakes spanning 50,000 acres or more can be intimidating, Sundin has a plan for quickly breaking down the biggest water into manageable portions.

“It all starts with identifying areas where baitfish such as shiners and young-of-the-year perch and sunfish moved in late fall,” he says. “I look for sand flats offering some type of weedy or woody cover.”

Open-water scouting during the final days before freeze-up is ideal, he says. But sonar, underwater cameras and, where visibility allows, peering into the water through pilot holes can all yield valuable intel on the location of weeds and other cover.
big perch
“Scruffy sandgrass typically gets blown away in late fall by strong winds,” he said. “Hardier stands of cabbage and coontail often cling to life longer, attracting all types of baitfish and predators, including jumbo perch.”

Weedbeds protected from heavy seas often fare best. For example, if the lake experienced strong northwest winds in autumn, exposed stretches on the east shore might be a bad choice. Conversely, a protected bay on the west side could be a gold mine.

“Studying a lake map for corners, pockets and protected corners can also help you pinpoint prime lies,” he adds.

Sundin is quick to point out that virtually anything offering baitfish-attracting cover is infinitely better than barren sand. Clambeds, woody debris and patches of rocks can all be good. Just keep in mind that early ice perch are roamers.

“They’re far more apt to roam the flats than hunker down on a specific spot, so you need to keep moving as well.”

Depths vary by lake, but trend toward the shallow side. On Winnie, Sundin focuses on sand flats tapering from 6 to 8 feet deep. Perch prefer a bit deeper water on Leech Lake, often in the 9- to 12-foot range. In most cases, the high side of structure draws more cruising jumbos than the sides and foot of the flat.
perch talker
Once Sundin rolls into a promising area, he uses aggressive tactics to quickly determine whether perch are present. After drilling a few test holes, he tests the water with a large search lure such as an 1/8- to ¼-ounce jig. Top picks include Lindy Fishing Tackle’s 360 Jig and the company’s new Perch Talker.

Both baits are attention getters. The 360’s body spins on an internal axle, creating vibrations and sounds that call curious perch for a closer look. For its part, the Perch Talker draws a crowd thanks to beads and discs that click and rattle, attracting perch from a distance.

(Left - New Lindy Perch Talker)

“I use sizes a little larger than most folks fish for perch,” he says. “At this point, I just want to see if there are perch around. I can always fine-tune the presentation from there.” For the same reason, the first lures dropped into the strike zone are rarely tipped. “We’re just looking for fish,” he says. “Tipping takes time that could be spent searching.”

If his sonar lights up with fish, and especially if a few jumbos commit to a search lure, Sundin punches a few more holes to thoroughly work the area.

“I’m not a 200-hole guy,” he laughs. “A half-dozen or so is plenty. I just want to walk around, dropping a jig here and there looking for active fish.”

Sundin’s second wave of baits includes downsized versions of his first-strike lures, along with 1/8-ounce renditions of other favorites like the Lindy Frostee.

“A Lindy Slick Jig tipped with a whole minnow is also deadly,” he says. Top jig colors include, “anything that reminds perch of themselves. Orange and yellow, green and yellow, and firetiger all appeal to a perch’s cannibalistic nature.”
Jigstrokes are amply animated.

“Picture a bull in a China shop,” he grins. “There’s really no single magic way to jig up aggressive first-ice perch. I typically use a pop-pause cadence, and really only finesse if I’m seeing numbers of sniffers on sonar that refuse to bite bigger, more active presentations.”

While Sundin saunters from hole-to-hole, popping and pausing, he keeps an eye on a dead rod as well.

“Where two lines are legal, a Slick Jig or Foo Flyer tipped with a whole minnow makes a fine deadstick combination,” he says. “Run the hook in the minnow’s mouth and out the skull as far back as possible. Don’t worry about killing the bait. There are always a few perch in every school that prefer to sneak in and inhale a motionless minnow.”

When deadsticking, Sundin is careful to present the minnow in a lifelike fashion. He always adjusts his knot so the bait hangs horizontally.

Put it all together and Sundin’s strategies are just the ticket for catching broad-shouldered, big-water perch as soon as you can safely access their near-shore hunting grounds. Which begs the question, with some of the season’s finest perch action so close at hand, why wait until late winter to put a mess of jumbos on your side of the ice?