A Mess of Perch

Early spring is the best time of the year to catch these sweet-tasting fish. Here's how.

An angler releases a fat yellow perch back into the spring water.
Yellow perch
An angler releases a fat yellow perch back into the spring water.Field & Stream Online Editors

Squeezing into a window table at the Freshwater Lodge, a busy restaurant in Traverse City, hard by the Lake Michigan shoreline, Bruce Richards and I had a chance to rest after a long day of fishing. There were heaping plates of sirloin and shrimp at neighboring tables, but the menu offered something better.

"Perch," I said, nodding. "I'd like a platter of fried perch." Richards, the world-class fly-casting instructor from Michigan, laughed from across the table. "You're right," he said. "They're the best." He ordered the same.

Yellow perch offer the finest of simple pleasures. Among freshwater fish, their sweet, white meat is arguably the best eating, rivaling fresh walleye fillets. They are also perhaps the most abundant of all panfishes in the northern half of the United States and are usually the easiest to catch, especially right around now.

SPRING SPAWNERS With their deep-yellow sides barred with black, and distinctive bright-orange pectoral fins, yellow perch are easy to recognize. Spawning takes place when water temperatures approach 50 degrees in early spring and perch move into the shallows. Females spread eggs in long strands over old weedbeds or shallow rocky areas, where fishing a small worm or minnow held just above the bottom by a small bobber is a preferred tactic.

NIPPERS, NOT GRABBERS Perch nibble at bait and don't inhale it. Leaving the long ends of a garden worm trailing from the hook almost guarantees lots of nibbles with few hooked fish. Use a small piece of worm that will just barely cover a size 4 bait hook so the fish will take it along with the bait.

GOING TO SCHOOL Perch tend to school by size, and with any luck you'll start to hit fish that are 10 or more inches long. The world-record yellow perch of 4 pounds 3 ounces was caught in New Jersey in 1865, but these days any perch heavier than a pound and longer than 13 inches is a trophy. If the perch you're catching are all 8 inches or shorter, look for another school.

BEST BAIT RIGS Boat anglers typically drift-fish along appropriate depth contours to locate a school. Once they have, they'll anchor and drop their worms or minnows to the bottom. The typical rig consists of a small sinker at the end of the line with two or three dropper hooks spaced 6 to 10 inches apart above the weight. Vary your sinker weight according to depth; ¿¿ ounce might be enough to allow you to feel bottom at 15 feet, but you might need an ounce or more in deeper water later in the summer.

FAVORED JIGS I prefer jigging to baitfishing, if only because it's more active. Use small jigs with short tails because the fish, again, are notorious short-strikers. I like the marabou-tailed Foxee jigs by Blue Fox, in chartreuse, 1/16- and 1/8-ounce sizes.

LINE LOGIC You can catch perch on almost anything, but I prefer to use bait or jigs with tackle carrying 10-pound-test or lighter monofilament. You'll do best with a little finesse, however, and that means an ultralight spinning outfit spooled with 4-pound-test FireLine and 3 feet of clear, 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line as a leader. Connect the lines with back-to-back Uni knots. The low-stretch line gives you sensitivity for detecting light bites and also allows for a quick hookset when that tap-tap comes.

WATCH THOSE SPINES Their abundance and willingness to bite make yellow perch ideal fish for little kids to catch. Just watch out for the sharp spines in the dorsal fin. Carefully grasp the fish across the body behind the head with your thumb and fingers to avoid getting pricked.