By Mike Gnatkowski
Michigan’s winter perch hot spots come in all shapes and sizes. The most consistent are large, natural lakes in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. It takes a while for some of these lakes to freeze, but when they do you can count on finding perch schools roaming the main basins of the lake where they reside all winter long.
Drowned river mouth lakes on the state’s west side offer dependable winter perch action. If the “white” perch from Lake Michigan don’t move in there’s a good population of resident yellow perch to keep anglers busy. Often you can catch a mixed bag of both.
Perch relate to the bottom, and the faster you can get your bait down to the fish the better. Being able to fish multiple rods is a bonus.
My go-to rig for perch is simple. I use a ½- to ¾-ounce bell sinker, two Bear Paw Connectors and short 4-inch leaders made of a stiff fluorocarbon and two sharp No. 10 treble hooks on my dead rod. Add a foam bobber to detect when a perch is fooling with your rig. The bobbers snap on to your line and since the line doesn’t run through the bobber this set-up prevents freeze up. If the bite is steady, I’ll put a second dead rod down.
Keeping track of two rods in a shanty if the bite is hot is plenty. Otherwise, heavy jigging spoons excel for attracting schools. You can add scent-enhanced plastic to the spoon or a minnow head.
Muskegon and White lakes produce consistent winter perchin’. Lake Michigan perch move into the drowned river mouth lakes in good numbers in late fall. The perch are “whites” meaning they are perch from Lake Michigan. Most years perch that move into the drowned river mouths in the fall stay until spring. It’s common for ice anglers to catch limits of 25 perch that range from 9 to 11 inches up until early April. The drowned river mouth lakes should be on fire during this winter’s late ice.
Prime locations on Muskegon Lake include the humps off Bear Lake Channel, off the sand docks, and behind the Clipper. On White Lake try behind the post office, off Long Point, and west of the narrows.
Ice fishing on Great Lakes bays and estuaries has been off the charts in recent winters. High numbers of walleye have affected perch populations, but the result is the remaining yellow bellies are big! Ice anglers have reported catching more 12- to 15-inch perch than they can ever remember
“When the fishing first gets started on Saginaw Bay you can be in as little as 2 feet of water,” says Andrew Hendrickson of Northstar Fishing Adventures. “Fishing on the Bay is a waiting game. The perch schools are constantly on the move so eventually a school is going to come by.”
If you sit in one spot for an hour and don’t get bit it’s time to move, Hendrickson said. The perch will roam though channels in the weeds and use subtle ridges to travel. If you’re not in one of those places you’d better find a better spot.
“Catching a limit of 7- to 8-inch perch on the Bay is no big deal. On a good day those fish will be 9 to 13 inches,” he said.
Hendrickson said you can find perch in as little as 2 feet of water and out to 9 feet with the best perchin’ generally in 5 or 6 feet. Guys routinely catch jumbos when targeting walleyes in deeper water, too, but perch in Great Lakes bays and estuaries are typically shallower. Look to Wigwam Bay, near Nayanquing Point, and Wildfowl Bay for schools of winter perch.
The idea is to put as many perch on the ice before the school moves off. The game is usually a visual one. Classic Russian hooks and Jack’s Spoons excel. Plain jig heads tipped with live bait or scent enhanced plastics work well, too.
Large inland lakes like Mullet, Higgins, and Hubbard can be counted on for winter perch. They typically school up in the main lake basins where they roam in search of wigglers, crayfish, and minnows. Suckers tend to inhabit the same areas during the winter and it’s not uncommon for the perch schools to shadow the suckers for any tidbits they might root up.
Hendrickson said winter perch on Mullet Lake cruise expansive flats in deeper water during the winter and half the battle is locating them. He explained that it doesn’t have to be extremely deep water, just deeper flats where they can root out their favorite wintertime food – wigglers.
“Wigglers are surprisingly active in the winter,” Hendrickson said. “I have a friend who is a perch-fishing fanatic who claim wigglers will come out and swim around actively and then go back in the bottom, and do it several times during the winter.”
I’ve been told wigglers do this because they’re shedding their husks as they grow. Whatever the reason wigglers (mayfly larva) are available to winter perch and are a preferred food source. But that’s not all winter perch eat. They’re not above eating crayfish, bloodworms, gobies, shiners or anything else they can swallow.
Typically, winter perch can be found in depths ranging from 30 to 50 feet on Michigan’s largest northern Lower Peninsula lakes
Hendrickson said tip-ups are important tools for locating the nomadic perch schools. He deploys the maximum number of tip-ups over a wide expanse of the lake surface where he expects the perch to show and then waits. (Anglers may legally have three lines, in any combination, in the water at one time.) In the meantime, he’ll drills a few holes using his electric auger and fishes from the comfort of a shanty trying to draw fish to his location while keeping a watchful eye on the tip-ups.
Bait the tip-ups with lively walleye-sized shiner minnows. The real jumbos have no problem swallowing the bigger minnows, but often they just toy with it before committing. That’s Henrickson’s cue to quickly get to the hole, set the tip-up aside and zoom a tungsten jig down to the waiting perch. Usually finicky yellowbellies can be coaxed into biting a dancing jig. Additionally, several of his cohorts may join the party before they move off.
Wherever you live there’s bound to be a Michigan late winter perch hot spot near you.