While the largemouth bass is hands-down the favorite fish in the country, if you had to pick a fish to slip in at a close second, it would be the yellow perch. These abundant, voracious, and delectable little fish are present in over 25 of the 50 states as well as nearly every Canadian province in North America, providing excellent fishing across their range. Traveling in large, concentrated schools, catching a full stringer of perch has been a joy experienced by both rookie and veteran anglers alike since we first figured out how to drop a baited hook into the water.
Unlike bass, which are generally pursued for their fighting ability where they are released to be caught again, most perch fishermen hunt the banks of the lakes, ponds, and small rivers that perch inhabit, hoping to bring home a mess of the small yellow and black striped fish for the dinner table. A close cousin of the walleye, perch have a light yet hearty flesh that is on par with their larger relatives and are considered to be some of the best-eating fish in freshwater. However, in order to fill a plate up with fried perch, you have to catch them. While getting a few perch in the bucket can be a fairly simple process, if you want to catch a lot of perch consistently, you’ve got to know how to find and fish for them no matter where they’re hiding.
Perch live in a variety of different water bodies and move around to different depths and structure features throughout the year. However, as previously mentioned, perch almost always travel in large schools so once you find one, there are sure to be others close by. So, the key to finding and catching them consistently is understanding where the fish will be gathered throughout the year.
In spring, perch start stacking up in the shallows as soon as the water temperatures reach 45 to 50 degrees in preparation for the spawn. Finding these fish is a fairly simple process, either from a boat or from shore. Start by scanning the water with your electronics, concentrating your efforts in depths from 3 to 8 feet of water, and looking for that magical temperature window. If you don’t have any electronics, you can also find a pile of fish by hunting around with a pair of polarized sunglasses in clear water, trying to spot the fish themselves. Once you find a good school of perch, anchor up or find a comfortable seat on the bank and hammer down.
During summer, perch can be a bit more challenging. The increased water temperatures and bright sunlight mean that the fish are more active in the early mornings or late evenings, giving you a narrow window of peak fishing time. Like crappie, bluegill, and other panfish, perch will start to move into deeper waters closely adjacent to their spring haunts. Start hunting for summer perch by playing the close drop-offs to their spring spawning areas in depths from 10 to 25 feet. Electronics will help you find and target any large perch schools in the area, but you can also find success by fishing a variety of different depths until you start to hook up consistently.
Fall brings with it another shift in perch positioning. As the water temps begin to drop, perch will move back into shallower water, from 8 to 12 feet, specifically concentrating in areas with hard clay or rock bottoms near weed beds with softer mucky bottoms. Here massive schools of perch will gather and feed on schools of baitfish, small invertebrates like crayfish, and insect nymphs. Perch schools tend to rove a bit during this time of year, so it may take some searching to find a good concentration of fish, but once you do, you’ll have a bend in your rod and a struggling perch at the end of your line with every cast.
Winter is perhaps the best time of the year to fill up a cooler and your belly with some scrappy, fall-fattened perch fillets. The fish move into some of their shallowest locations of the year and feed voraciously throughout the winter months. A popular target for ice fishermen in the north, but in waterbodies too warm or fast to freeze over, perch can still be caught quite easily on conventional gear by concentrating your efforts on the flats. These long, wide stretches of shallow water range from 3 to 5 feet deep, usually have sandy or rocky bottoms, and have large swaths of heavy weed growth, which schools of perch hunt like roving wolf packs. Finding these fish is a fairly simple process, consisting of fishing directly in or on the outskirts of patches of shallow-growing weeds, sand patches, rock piles, or other underwater structures until you find a school of perch to take home with you.
Equipment for perch is about as simple as it gets. Though the fish fight fairly hard when hooked, they don’t generally grow very large, with the world record yellow perch coming in at just over 18 inches long and tipping the scales at a minuscule 4 pounds. There’s absolutely no need to chase them with any real heavy gear. The best and most basic perch rig consists of a short ultralight to light action spinning rod paired with a light reel strung with 4- to 6-pound monofilament or braided line. This basic rig is the perfect setup for catching perch using a variety of different techniques, from jigging, to casting lures and live bait, to plunking and waiting with a worm and a bobber.
Perch tend to have a varied diet, feeding on different things from one day to the next. So aside from your rod and reel, you’ll want to bring a variety of different hooks, lures, and baits out onto the water with you to ensure you’ll have success. Small inline trout spinners like the Panther Martin and the Rooster Tail as well as small spoons like the Phoebe and the Little Cleo are go-to perch catchers for most anglers. If you’re after larger perch, small crankbaits and jerk baits like the Rapala Ultralight, the Yo-Zuri Snap Beans, and the F03 Rapala are all great slab perch producers.
Bait anglers will want to bring a good supply of size 8 to 4 bait hooks which are extremely adaptable and able to be baited up with whatever the perch are feeding on, be it worms, leeches, minnows, or even small crayfish. Additionally, bait anglers will also want a variety of small split shot and sinkers and different-sized bobbers and slip bobbers so they can easily fish their baits at whatever depths are necessary to consistently find the fish.
From bluegill to bass to muskie to tarpon, your best bet when you want to catch fish is always to start with live bait, and perch are no different. Their varied diet means that perch are extremely opportunistic feeders who are more than willing to move for bait even when it’s placed outside their feeding area. Your best bets for successful bait rigging are either with a worm, minnow, or leech set up underneath a float so that the bait hovers just above the bottom or sits directly on the bottom with a paternoster or “chicken rig.”
Float fishing for perch is a pretty easy way to set up and is most effective either in the spring or winter months when the fish are feeding in shallower water. Start by sliding a slip bobber onto your mainline and then tying one end of a small barrel swivel to the bottom of the line. Add a bobber stop above the line and bobber about a foot above the barrel swivel. Then tie a length of fluorocarbon leader to the other end of the swivel about 6 to 8 inches shorter than the depth of the water you’re fishing (i.e., in 6 feet of water, add 5 ½ feet of fluro). Tie a bait hook to the end of the leader and then add a split shot 6 to 12 inches above the hook. You can bait the hook with a worm, minnow, leech, or even some small maggots. Cast the rig out into some perchy looking spots and simply wait for the bobber to disappear.
A paternoster rig is slightly more complicated to set up but is easily the most effective way to fish for perch in the summer and early fall when the fish are hanging in deeper water. It’s a more effective rig for perch because it allows your bait to float just above the floor rather than just sitting and soaking on the bottom. Start your paternoster rig by tying a 2-foot length of light fluorocarbon or monofilament line to your mainline using a dropper loop knot or double surgeon's knot, leaving 1-foot-long tag end in place. In places where it is legal to fish multiple hooks at once you can do with several times so that you have multiple tag ends of line hanging off your main line. Tie a small bait hook to each one of your tag ends, and then tie a heavier ⅛- to ¾-ounce casting weight to the bottom of your now lengthened mainline. You can bait the hooks with almost anything, but I’ve found the best baits to use for targeting perch on a paternoster rig to be either small minnows or inflated worms, which will hold well off the bottom. Drop the rig from the boat or cast it offshore into deeper water where you know perch are hanging and let the sinker drop the baits down to the bottom. Then simply reel in the extra slack and wait for your rod tip to start twitching before setting the hook.
Lures can be incredibly effective perch catchers so long as you match the rig you are using to the water conditions. When chasing perch in fairly shallow water without a lot of structure around for you to get snagged on your best bet to find and stay on top of roving perch schools is with an inline spinner, spoon, or crankbait. Cast the lure into likely-looking places and then retrieve it back to shore or the boat at a leisurely pace, increasing or decreasing your retrieval speeds until you start getting consistent strikes.
In deeper water, your best bet for putting the smackdown on a plethora of perch is by using jigs. This can be done either from a boat or off of shore along sharp drop-offs and deep shelves. There are a lot of options when it comes to perch jigs, but my favorites include the Jig Rap, Hot Skirt, and classic Marabou Jigs in white, yellow, chartreuse, or black. These lures can be fished by themselves but seem to work better when tipped with a live or dead minnow, a worm, or even maggots.
Fish your jigs by dropping them down to the bottom, either letting them land directly on clay, rock, or sandy bottoms or stopping them just above weed beds, brush piles, and other snaggy structures. Once the lure has reached the desired depth, start “jigging” it by gently twitching the tip of your rod in small vertical pulses to attract some attention. While this is usually more than enough to call in some perch to smash the jig, when you’re over fish but not getting any hits often it’s best to vary your jigging cadence. Try going from small pulses to rapid bounces to lifting and dropping the jig a few feet until you find a rhythm that works for the perch.
As fun as it is to chase larger gamefish like bass, pike, walleye, and trout, there’s just something special about chasing after yellow perch. These small fish have an almost universal appeal with a simplistic yet tangible purity found when holding their wriggling forms in your hands, their spiny dorsal fins pricking your fingers while you try to get them on the stringer or drop them in a bucket. It’s a feeling of satisfaction, of knowing that you either have a tasty snack or a great meal to come. Perch are a fish of the Friday night fish fry, meant to be fished for and enjoyed while cracking a few beers with family and friends. In the end, it’s almost enough to make you give up bass fishing altogether.