In Search of the Perch Bonanza!

By Steve Weisman

Anglers will travel great distances on ice when it comes to chasing perch. In the Hawkeye state, one of the go-to places is the Iowa Great Lakes. Big Spirit and the Okoboji chain all have excellent perch populations. However, targeting these schools of meandering perch also means that there will be lots of fishermen – little towns of perch fishermen where ever the perch bite is on.

In many areas of Iowa, however, there is another perch bite that often goes on. It’s on lakes that “once in a while” take off and feature a perch bonanza. However, it changes each year, and it may only happen once every 5 to even 10 years.
So, how do you find these hotspots? After all, if you hear about it during the winter, it will most likely be on the back side by the time you get there.

Another good way is to check with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has 16 fish management offices, responsible for ensuring quality fishing in Iowa’s lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Biologists and technicians from these offices create fish habitat, accessible shorelines, improved water quality and much more. They are excellent resources for fishing information for anglers in their local areas. This map shows the districts (either a 7-10 county area or a section of the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers) each office manages:

One of the best ways is to monitor the fall fishing bite. Find out if any lakes in your area have had a good perch bite heading into ice up. For example, here in northwest Iowa, Silver Lake (Lake Park) is one of those lakes that has perch in it, but most years they are caught by accident, often by walleye fishermen. However, this fall it has been on fire for 10-12 inch perch with an occasional fish over 12 inches. Many of them have been caught by shore anglers. It’s been years since this has happened, and according to Mike Hawkins, DNR Fisheries Biologist at the Spirit Lake Hatchery, their netting has shown an excellent adult perch year class in Silver Lake. So, my guess is right after ice up, there will be perch fishermen on the lake.

Two recently renovated shallow lakes are Trumbull Lake near Terril and Virgin Lake near Ruthven. According to Hawkins, these lakes are probably a year away from producing nice perch, but it might be worth checking out.

North central Iowa
For Kevan Paul, fishing guide and Clam/Ice Team pro staffer, much of his winter guiding comes on Clear Lake. Of course, Paul targets the huge populations of yellow bass and the excellent numbers of walleyes, but at the same time, he believes the perch population on Clear Lake is getting better.

“This fall we have begun to see more perch. I think part of it is the weed growth that is occurring, which gives them protection and allows more of them to get to catchable size. When we worked the weeds this past fall, we caught lots of 7-8 inchers along with a mix of perch up to 9 inches. “

Paul also likes to target Bluebill Lake, which is located about three miles east of Clear Lake. “It’s just off of I-35, and it has an excellent population of nice sized bluegills, crappie and perch. Bluebill Lake is always a good change of pace if we want to try something different than Clear Lake.”

Paul also gives a suggestion for the future. Both Silver Lake and Rice Lake have been excellent perch fisheries in the past. “They have been renovated and have a pile of perch in both of the lakes. I can see these two lakes really taking off in a year or two.”

Central Iowa
Meanwhile, Rod Woten, Clam Pro Staffer and director of the Iowa division of the ice fishing circuit Team Extreme, targets all panfish. “If I am really going to go specifically after perch, I will head to the Iowa Great Lakes, when I will catch some nice perch when I am targeting bluegills.”

Two of Woten’s go-to lakes are Big Creek Lake, which is located just north of Des Moines and Brushy Creek, which is located 15 miles southeast of Fort Dodge.

“What I have found at Big Creek is that the perch will come in ones and twos, and then you have to move. I will fish the brush piles for bluegills and hit a few perch doing this, usually along the edge of deeper water. The mid part of the lake has old roadbed that I will target. What I like about the winter is that the lake clears up and you can actually sight fish down to 12 feet.”

Woten says Brushy Creek is similar to Big Creek. “There are lots of tiny perch here, but there are also some big 10-12” perch to be taken. We fish the south end behind the island, off the old road bed and rock piles.”

The Mississippi River
With a note of pride, Fisheries Biologist Scott Gritters says, “The Mississippi River is Iowa’s wilderness. It contains 200,000 acres of water in Iowa’s boundary water reach! It is great year-round for a variety of fish. Pools 9 through 14 all contain good populations of perch. The last three state record perch have come from these pools. Ice fishermen can do very well, but there is so much water that it takes a lot to keep up with the bite. Our netting data shows that we have had tremendous perch reproduction for the past 10 years on the Mississippi River. We will see lots of young-of-the-year (3” fish), and then they seem to disappear and then reappear as they reach catchable size.” Look at the state records, and it is easy to see why so many anglers target the Mississippi River. The 2010 record taken out of Pool 11 weighed two pounds-six ounces. That record was broken two years later when a two pound-seven ounce jumbo was taken in Pool 12.

Gritters, in addition to being a biologist, is an avid angler, and from what he has seen and experienced, the biggest perch come during late ice, often times in late February. “Often the really good ice fishing yellow perch bite is after mid-winter period when some anglers are getting frustrated and just prior to ice breaking up, when anglers need to be careful they do not fall in!”

All of these pools; all of these waters. Where to start?

“One of the first things I think fishermen should target is vegetation. Gritters says, “The perch is a creature born out of vegetation!” A lot of the backwater lakes on these pools do have good vegetation. At the same time, perch tolerate slightly more current during the winter months than bluegills do. It seems like the perch bite takes off in the late fall when the water temperature hits 50 degrees.” Often, these perch will feed on midge larvae on the bottom. So for early ice, anglers can target near areas where the bite was good in the late fall. “Frankly, at times perch are a great side catch by lucky bluegill and crappie anglers,” notes Gritters.

These are a sample of the backwater lakes that Gritters suggests by pool.
• Pool 9 – Bear Paw, Cordwood and Fish Lake (near New Albin)
• Pool 10 – Joyce Lake (Harpers Ferry), Methodist, Norwegian (near McGregor) and Bussey lakes (near Guttenberg)
• Pool 11 – Swift Slough (lower end with current near Guttenberg), Mud Lake and Sunfish Lake (near Dubuque). According to an early November survey, Gritters says Sunfish Lake is dominated by perch.
• Pool 12 – Greens Lake (south of Dubuque)
• Pool 13 – Browns Lake (south of Belleview), Nicholson’s Landing (bottom of Pool 13-target late fall early ice)
• Pool 14 – Rock Creek and Cattail Slough (near Clinton). These are good during early ice. According to Gritters, catching a lot of perch is a new phenomenon on Pool 14 even though some have always been there.

Perch are inquisitive fish and will respond to jigs pounded on the bottom. Options include jigging spoons like the popular Shuck’s Jigger Minnow and the new Clam Rattlin’ Blade Spoon. At the same time, smaller tungsten jigs like the Clam Drop Jig respond to both subtle and vigorous tight jigging presentations. Colors vary, but glow jigs work well. Bait can be silver wigglers, euro larvae, wax worms a minnow head or plastics like the Maki Plastics, which come in a wide range of colors and sizes. Setting up a slip bobber with a plain hook and a minnow can work to entice perch.

Anglers new to an area should check with regional biologists, local baitshops and anglers to get an idea of where-to and how-to catch perch. It seems that each area, often each lake, has its own peculiarities where certain lures and certain baits work better than others.