For a fish that seldom grows larger than 12 inches, yellow perch get ice anglers fired up with excitement like no other fish can. Ice fishing for perch is almost an obsession. It hits every winter and sticks around long after the ice has disappeared.
Yellow perch happen to be one of the most prolific fish beneath the ice. Yet, that doesn’t always mean they’re easy to catch. In fact, consistently catching a bucket full of big perch requires the right gear and a little knowledge to get the job done.
Luckily, you can shorten the learning curve. Up your ice fishing game with our favorite foolproof tactics that are sure to help you catch more big perch this winter.
Find more perch ice fishing
Location really is everything. After all, no amount of gear will help you catch fish that aren’t there. The key is whittling down a large body of water to areas that hold high concentrations of fish. This is especially important for schooling fish like perch.
Understanding seasonal behaviors of perch is the first step to locating roaming schools or dispersed bands of fish. Let’s take a look at the crucial factors that determine where perch live under the ice.
The last place you left perch in the fall is generally the first place you’ll find them during early ice. Places where healthy weed lines still produce an abundance of forage or transitioning slopes leading from shallow flats to mid-depth basins are a good bet.
As the icy grasp of winter takes hold, most perch migrate away from cold, shallow water where plant decomposition depletes oxygen levels. In the never ending search for food and safety, perch school up and head to deeper basins and flats. These basins support a good forage base of minnows, invertebrates, bloodworms and shrimp for perch to gorge on. All with the protection from predators afforded by improved visibility on wide open flats.
You won’t find much change in perch locations until ice out when shallow weedy bays draw in spawning fish.
A closer look at depth
Zeroing in on the best depth for perch is a tricky topic. A multitude of ecological variables changes the answer for every lake and river system. Going back to the behaviors and needs of winter perch, mid-depth basins are a common theme.
As a rule of thumb, first ice perch are likely to hold in 8 to 12 feet of water so long as the conditions allow. For some lakes, those conditions can persist longer and in water less than 10 feet deep. Healthy green weed edges and sufficient oxygen are a must.
For the remainder of ice fishing season, most perch will school up in depths of 20 to 35 feet. In shallow lakes with very little depth variation, you’ll still find perch in deeper pockets, even if it is only a foot or two deeper.
Regardless of depth, it is important to note that perch are not often a structure oriented fish. Unlike walleye, where drop-offs and points help anglers pinpoint likely spots, perch sometimes avoid such places. Preferring instead the safe haven of mid-lake flats where a school’s many eyes keep a look out for approaching predators.
On the occasion when perch are gravitating toward structure, look for points or bars that push into flats or areas heavy with vegetation. Transition areas can also be a huge draw.
Finding the spot within a spot takes a little exploring and experimentation, which leads nicely into our next point.
Stay mobile to boost your catch
To truly catch more perch on the ice, you need to be willing to move. A lot! Mobility is how you’ll boost your catch rate and learn about the actual topography of a lake. Online maps will only get you so far. And sitting in one spot is seldom the most productive way to fish. Especially, if you are catching only a fish or two.
When you are learning a new lake and targeting perch, pack light so you can stay mobile. Don’t be afraid to drill lots of holes. In fact, before you even hit the ice, pre-scout at least a dozen likely spots on your maps and try out every spot.
Too often, we see anglers hold their ground because they think eventually fish will come their way. Unfortunately, that isn’t always going to work out. Instead, start at your most promising spot and fish it hard for 20 to 30 minutes. If nothing happens, move on to another spot.
Gear up right for winter perch
There are some lakes where the perch are so numerous that you can punch a hole anywhere through the ice and land on top of fish. However, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to catch them. We’ve seen plenty of anglers come up emptied handed among a school of hungry perch, all because they were ill equipped with inferior gear.
Get a leg up on the competition and learn from the mistakes of others (including our own) and get the right gear from the start.
Ice rods and line
After spending hundreds of hours chasing perch, we can tell you that a good ice fishing rod is the single most critical part of your entire setup. A cheap, stiff ice rod is going to make detecting light perch bites virtually impossible.
An ideal rod for perch needs a soft tip with as much sensitivity as you can get. We prefer medium-light to ultra-light fiberglass noodle rods with high-vis tips. Not sure which rods fit the bill? Check out our list of the 9 best ice fishing rods.
Graphite rods work great as well. Just make sure the tip has enough sensitivity. You need a visual indication of a bite or you’ll miss every one. When we use graphite rods for perch, we almost always use a spring bobber but more on that later.
Almost as important as the rod, is your line. Monofilament is a fine choice but quickly becomes a hindrance in deeper water. Because perch bite so lightly, the stretchiness of mono hides any evidence of the bite on your rod tip. That’s why we suggest braid. Power Pro Ice 5 lb test is a good option and it’s what we use. Tie on a 3 foot length of 4 lb test fluoro or mono leader at the end to attach your bait.
Braid has zero stretch, so any bite is immediately beamed up to your rod tip. Without a doubt, you will drastically improve your success with this upgrade alone. Fluorocarbon is another option as well that has less stretch than mono.
Lures and bait big perch love
There is so much tackle to choose from when it comes to perch. Most of it is designed to catch you in the store. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few gems among them. While you don’t need tons of different lures and baits to be successful, you should still build a well rounded perch kit. With a simple variety of lures and baits, you’ll be ready to adapt to any situation.
To start, there are setups that almost always work. These are the essentials and you don’t want to be on the ice with out them.
- Tungsten jigs in assorted sizes: Tip with bait or soft plastics.
- Slip bobber with plain hooks and split shot weights (Find out why slip bobbers are nearly unbeatable on the ice.)
- Assortment of micro soft plastics: Clam Maki, Little Atom Nuggies, etc.
- Live bait: Maggots, wax worms, mealworms, minnows (Which are the best? Find out here.)
Next on the list are active jigging lures. Perch are naturally curious and a little flash and vibration can draw in fish from far and wide. Here are a few to consider.
- Acme Rattle Master
- Northland Tackle Forage Minnow
- Lindy Perch Talker
Our last category of lures are minnow mimics. We reserve these for aggressive bites on lakes that produce true jumbo perch.
- Rapala Jigging Rap
- Rapala Rippin’ Rap
You don’t need to spend a fortune on lures to catch gobs of perch. Focus on the basics. A small tackle box with a range of colors and sizes should do the trick.
We are often asked which color lure is best for perch. Generally, gold, green, firetiger and perch colored lures are best. Perch often feed on smaller perch so perch colors are a safe bet. When you need to get their attention, opt for some silver or gold flash and throw in the occasional pink.
Want to know how to fish every one of these lures like a pro? Check out our completed guide of the 7 best lures for perch you need to have.
Essential electronics to locate perch
Some bodies of water are thick with perch and anyone with a hook in the water can catch them by the bucket full. Most of the time though, ice anglers need a helping hand to track down schooling perch.
Flashers, fish finders, underwater cameras and live sonar technology give anglers a huge advantage. Plus, they are a blast to use.
At the very least, a basic flasher is a must for any ice angler. At around $350, it’s a bit of an investment but worth every penny. With a good flasher, you can quickly measure water depth, bottom hardness and see schools of fish and how they respond to bait.
A notch above flashers are fish finders. These are like open water sonar units but adapted to hard water fishing. Using an ice transducer, you get the same information as a flasher along with the benefits of lake maps and GPS.
Live sonar imaging is the latest trend and lets you scan wide swaths of water from a single hole. These are expensive units but the technology is awesome. They aren’t yet priced for the masses so it’s not your best option for perch.
Another worthwhile tool is an underwater camera. These aren’t necessarily essential but they are handy in certain situations. And they make ice fishing highly entertaining. Use them to analyze bottom composition, investigate weed patches and use it to watch fish bite your bait.
Other equipment for success on the ice
With a quality rod, good line, a handful of basic tackle and maybe a flasher, we can all but guarantee you’ll catch more perch than ever. But if you want to ensure you never go home empty handed, you need to add a couple more things to your perch fishing arsenal.
Spring bobber: Spring bobbers turn just about any rod into super sensitive bite detectors. Perch bite so light that even experienced anglers miss fish on occasion. Read our in-depth spring bobber guide to boost your perch catching prowess.
Reels: Obviously, you need a reel to pair up with your favorite perch rod. We prefer spinning reels but inline reels could improve your catch rate. Inline reels deliver a more natural presentation (bait won’t spin) that some anglers swear by.
A good seat: Part of seeing every bite and fishing effectively involves a good ice fishing seat. Without one, you probably won’t stay as focused as you need to be. Check out our favorite ice fishing seats.
Finesse tactics for finicky perch
We’ve seen perch caught using all sorts of tactics. However, only a few seem to work all the time. It’s especially important to dial in your tactics when perch get finicky and the bite gets tough. And simplifying is the way to go.
A small tungsten jig tipped with waxworms or spikes is about as simple as it gets. This is our confidence bait and has yet to fail us. The beauty of a tungsten jig is its versatility. Take an aggressive approach and pound the ground to make clouds of silt or tone it down and give it tiny tantalizing twitches that invite even the most shy perch to gulp it down.
Another finesse tactic that is woefully under utilized is the slip bobber rig. This is a very hands off approach that uses a plain hook baited with your choice of bait, a split shot weight to drop it down and a slip bobber as your strike indicator. Super sensitive and incredibly effective. Use a slip bobber on a second rod in tandem with your active jigging rod. Take a minute to check out our complete ice fishing slip bobber guide to fully benefit from this rig.
The last finesse tactic we’ll talk about here is the dropper rig. With a dropper rig, you combine the attention-getting flash of a spoon with the delicate offering of a small baited hook or jig. All you do is tie a 2 inch mono or fluoro leader from the hook of a small spoon to a small baited jig. Tie it up yourself or buy a dropper rig pre-made. Either way, it’s highly effective at capitalizing on a perch’s need to investigate flash while giving finicky fish a good reason to bite.
Priceless tips for recognizing a perch bite
If you were to only read one part of this entire guide, it should be this part. Mainly because the biggest challenge for anyone ice fishing for perch for the first time is seeing the bite.
I can’t think of a single fish that has a more subtle bite than a yellow perch during ice fishing season. They do, on occasion, hit hard and you can’t miss it. But over 95% of the time, perch can inhale and spit your bait without you having the slightest clue what just happened. We’ve seen it ourselves using an underwater camera.
However, there are a couple ways to detect more perch bites and you’ll therefore end up with more fish on the ice. Take a look at the following tips that we wish we would have known the first time we ice fished for perch.
- Start out with the most sensitive setup: Give yourself the advantage by using a fluoro leader on a braided mainline. In addition, use a titanium spring bobber on your rod tip. If a perch bites, you’ll see it.
- Practice the slow lift: The slow lift has filled a lot of buckets over the years and it is easy to master. It works like this. Watch for a fish to engage with your bait on your flasher. As it moves up to your bait, barely quiver the bait as you lift your rod tip millimeter by millimeter. The key is to lift slowly, almost imperceptibly. The entire time stare at your rod tip. When you see the lightest dip, set the hook.
Combine these two tips on your next perch fishing trip and you’ll be the envy of the lake.
Isolate the jumbos among the school
The definition of a jumbo perch varies among anglers. In highly productive perch regions, 14 inches or bigger is considered a jumbo. Think Cascade Lake in Idaho. In other areas, local ice anglers might consider a 12 inch perch a jumbo. Personally, we think any perch larger than average in the lake is a jumbo perch and a thrill all the same.
Regardless of how you classify jumbo perch, isolating the biggest in the lake is not an exact science. Honestly, it’s mostly luck and weeding through enough small ones until you come across a jumbo.
However, there are a few things you can do to put the odds in your favor and claim your fair share of jumbo perch.
- Find the biggest schools of fish. In our experience, big schools generally have bigger perch. There is still a large percentage of little dinkers among them but you stand a better chance of encountering the largest perch in a lake in the biggest schools.
- Size up your bait when the bite is hot. A hot bite is every angler’s dream. If you want to limit the number of small fish that take your bait before a jumbo comes around, try sizing up your lure or bait. Use minnow imitation lures or actual minnows if legal.
- Leave little fish behind. At some point, you need to move on if all you’re catching is small perch. That’s often the case later in the season as larger perch leave shallow vegetation and move to deeper basins. Smaller fish hold out in the shallows longer.
- Invest in an underwater camera. For the jumbo addicted anglers out there, an underwater camera is a valuable tool. Use it when you find a big school that is hanging around and watch for a jumbo swimming around. With a camera, you can keep your bait away from smaller fish and tantalize a jumbo when it shows up.
If you made it to the end of this article, congratulations! This is an information dense article but we wanted to share as many tips as we could. We don’t want to keep any of our secrets from loyal readers. Everybody should have a shot at catching more and bigger perch. We are fanatics when it comes to ice fishing for yellow perch and once you hone your skills and start catching more big perch, you will be too. Good luck this ice fishing season!