By Matt Straw

Perch are predators. They stalk deep weedlines, hunting through grass like miniature redfish. They slide through rockpiles, using the cover to approach unwary minnows and claw-happy craws. Perch want to hunt and prefer to chase prey, especially in optimum conditions.

Food might be young shiners that lost the protection of a dense, green forest of weeds in shallower water at the onset of winter. It could be young crayfish on shallow rockpiles and reefs. Or, it might be invertebrates that burrow in sand. Whatever the food is, perch want to hunt it when active. The biggest perch hunt on isolated spots.

The best areas include opportunities for invertebrates. Burrowing mayfly nymphs, annelids, and tiny crustaceans tend to concentrate near transitions between hard and soft bottom types. The biggest perch may need to hunt minnows to build girth, but they also get big by having plan B close at hand. Like couch potatoes and refrigerators, big perch and three or more forage options are never far apart.

“Jumbo perch find isolated structures surrounded by soft bottom where they can fall back to a diet of worms and bugs after taking their daily allowance of meaty minnows,” says fishing pro, TV personality and perch fanatic Jon Thelen.
ice perch
Big perch are voracious eaters. They crop areas down like little herds of cattle and then move on. That’s why last week’s spots sometimes fail to produce. To hunt these hunters down, good anglers work together by hop-scotching quickly from spot to spot, taking turns drilling lots of holes over each area, then hole-hopping with large, flashy baits like spoons and lively minnows.

“Big perch are predators,” Thelen said. “That makes them curious. Big perch move appreciable distances to check out rattling baits like the Lindy Darter and Lindy Rattln' Flyer Spoon. They like the Lindy Slick jig when it’s being pounded on the bottom. Big perch investigate noise and flash. The Flyers and Slick Jigs I use are relatively big baits. Slick Jigs range from micro sizes up to ¼ ounce, and I use the 1/16- or even the 1/8-ounce versions with a whole minnow where I know jumbos are around. I tip the 1/16-ounce Rattln’ Flyer Spoon with a minnow head. If you’re looking for 12- to 15-inch jumbos, larger baits are the key. Big perch like whole minnows, and a deadstick rod with a live minnow on a size #12 treble hook can be deadly next to a jigging presentation with a Flyer or Darter.”

No fish in the ice fishing world are pressured by anglers more than big perch. When good fishermen find certain conditions, they know hole-hopping with spoons beats sitting in shanties and waiting them out. Move fast with a rattling spoon or lure to hammer perch while everybody else waits in shelters for the bite to start. Hole hopping on ice with spoons and big baits is best from first ice to mid-winter where:
1/ The water is clear
2/ Green weeds persist shallow
3/ Shiners are populous

“Flats used by smaller perch do intersect with those isolated structures jumbos prefer,” Thelen said. “When catching smaller perch, just keep moving. Jumbos move farther afield than smaller perch to find those isolated rockpiles, reefs and hard-bottom humps. But when big fish and little fish areas intersect on the basin-flat side of structures, jumbos can get caught up in a competitive feeding frenzy tailor-made for aggressive baits like Darters and Flyers.”

A little 1- to 2-foot rise creating a little plateau of clay or rock 14-feet down on a 16-foot flat can hold a school of jumbos. The more isolated such structures are, the better.

“Jumbos like hard-bottom structure surrounded by soft substrates,” Thelen said. “Those areas offer two primary sources of food. A short distance separates them from those soft-bottom invertebrates and the protein-rich minnows they need to maintain their portly, prodigious size.”
jumbo perch
Don’t stick with a series of holes just because of the effort expended drilling them. If nothing happens in five minutes, move. Before running out of holes, send somebody with an auger to the next isolated hump, reef, rockpile or green weedline.

“Mobility is key,” Thelen said. “It’s easier, though, than chasing 8- to 10-inchers way out in the middle of nowhere on basin flats. Schools of jumbo perch are not big. Most members of the school get cropped off over the years by birds, pike, bass, walleyes and fishermen. The schools are smaller, but concentrated closer to structure.”

Thelen uses sonar to find isolated spots and to run from hole-to-hole.

“I don't just look to see if fish are there,” he said.  “I fish each hole for 5 minutes whether I see fish or not. I use the curiosity of big perch against them. It doesn’t take much to call perch in with a rattling bait. If big, predatory perch are less than 50 feet away, chances are good they’ll respond and move quickly toward the right kind of noise and vibration.”

Thelen uses charts to select drilling locations, looking for big to very little rises in the bottom surrounded by basin flats.

“I have a sequence to my drilling,” he said. “I drill holes down a 50- to 100-yard stretch along the edge of a piece of structure—a rise, hump, rockpile or whatever. At both ends of that run of holes along the edge, I drill out 100 yards over deeper water, making what looks like a ‘C’ with squared ends. Jumbos will be close to the edge, and when they’re not feeding on the edge, I want to work my way out to make certain they haven’t simply moved off structure to hunt different game.”

Thelen has rods ready to match the three basic moods of all fish: Active, neutral, and inactive.

“I want to rip an aggressive rattling bait like the noisy Lindy Darter on a medium-power panfish rod to attract perch when they’re highly active,” Thelen said. “The subtle rattle of the Lindy Flyer Spoon or thump of a larger Slick Jig is perfect on a medium-light panfish rod for active or neutral fish. And I always have an ultralight rod handy for fishing a single waxworm or pair of maggots on a Micro Slick Jig for inactive perch.”

Perch crop down their prey as winter progresses. Jumbos never exhaust the supply of minnows or crayfish, but thin them to the point where feeding on nymphs, annelids and other invertebrates along transitions becomes more efficient. This makes moving to different holes less effective once you find the fish. Keying on invertebrates, jumbos may not eat rattling spoons as well—but they continue to respond to them.

“Tie a short leader to the bottom of that Rattln’ Flyer,” Thelen says. “A 2- to 3-inch, 4-lb leader terminating with a Lindy Micro Slick Jig tipped with a maggot won’t tangle very often. Tie it right to the bottom of the treble hook on the spoon. When big perch hunt invertebrates on mid-depth or deeper flats, smaller presentations utilizing maggots or waxworms match what they’re eating, but the spoon gets it down quicker, the rattle brings more fish to your hole, and the larger lure provides a second option that often catches a significant percentage of the perch. During a hot bite, you might bring up two at a time.”

When perch come stalking through grass or boulders, hunt the hunters down. Drill a lot of holes and hop from one to the next. Perch want to hunt, so help them out. Give them noise, and flash 5 minutes to draw them in. Then hop.