The Midwest is home to some of the finest jumbo perch fishing in the nation. There are many waters that have become legendary for their perch populations.  Most notably Devils Lake in North Dakota, Winnebego in Minnesota and Waubay in South Dakota come to mind. These are fine fisheries and are great places to target perch in the winter. 

But there is an underground perch population thriving and growing in the perch belt.  There are literally thousands of potholes, sloughs, glacial lakes and ponds that are full of water, food, and perch throughout the Midwest. These lakes are often in freshly flooded remote locations way off of the beaten path.  This is the kind of ice fishing for perch that I live for.

Yellow perch are native to the prairie and thrive in freshly flooded, shallow, nutrient-rich, fertile lakes that are nothing more than overgrown duck sloughs.  These lakes have a thriving food chain that provides the ultimate opportunity for prairie perch to grow big and grow fast. I’m talking about the kind of lakes that have green water and smell terrible in the summer.  These are the types of waters we are looking for in the winter.

Where can you find these jumbo perch?  Jumbo perch have a way of finding their way into bodies of water that you wouldn’t expect: overgrown duck sloughs, ponds in farmers pastures and local ponds to name a few.  

perch ice fishing slough

Some of the best ice fishing for jumbo perch in the Dakotas are sloughs that are very remote.

How these bodies of water become loaded with perch is kind of a mystery.  Some lakes are stocked by DNR, some are stocked by fishermen and many theorize that waterfowl and flooding help spread perch in the spring. I don’t know how all the magic happens and I don’t care but if there are more than about 5 feet of water and it’s in the right area drilling holes is the only way to find out.

Stocking reports and netting reports can certainly give you an idea of where to start in some instances.  My advice is to use this information only for what it is, a piece of information to help you formulate a plan.  This data is useful but just because perch were stocked or some perch showed up in nets does not mean a booming perch population exists. 

Conversely just because perch, where not stocked or didn’t show up in netting reports, is not proof positive that perch don’t exist. In many instances, I have found these data points to be misleading.  Take them with a grain of salt. 

For me, personally, I’m not looking for an 8 – 11-inch perch here.  Normal-sized perch, while good table fare, are not what midwest sumo perch is all about.  We aren’t fishing for numbers and lots of action. We are fishing for the chance to catch perch over 2 pounds. It’s REALLY hard to move on from a lake with good action with perfectly cleanable size perch but if it’s true jumbo perch you are after then move you must.

12 inch perch

Those 11 inchers with bellies make for some nice little fillets. But that’s not what I’m after.

These jumbo perch have very short life spans, usually less than 7 years.  They don’t look normal. They have small heads, gigantic girthy bodies and often times surpass two pounds.  They are truly legendary. Jumbo perch establish themselves quickly and they grow fast. Often times the biggest perch, over two pounds, have fins that are starting to deteriorate indicating that their time is almost up.  

Fish in the 11-13 inch range are very common and the true 14 – 16 inch (yes 16”) beasts do exist and they are a sight to behold.

Successful ice fishing perch anglers do their homework. I usually pick an area and mark out 10 – 15 lakes that I want to fish in a season that has a high probability of having jumbo perch populations.  Some might be lakes that are known to the public but are off the radar, many are not official “lakes” but have the depth and size to sustain fish populations.   

Usually, if you hear about a perch bite from your buddy or on the internet, it’s too late.  Perch bites spread like wildfire and get fished out quickly. Secrecy is key.

So if you’re planning on pursuing jumbo perch this winter, I highly recommend you put in your time and be prepared to drill…A LOT.  Unlocking the perch mystery won’t always come easy, but when you strike gold, it’s worth it.

best perch ice fishing

Some of the best perch ice fishing in the Midwest is in sloughs and small lakes that have freshwater shrimp.

Perch Ice Fishing Gear

Finding and staying on these fish takes effort, movement and time.  If it’s hard to move you won’t. If it’s hard to pack up and hit another lake you won’t.  

Pack light. My primary ice house is a simple one-man flip over with minimal gear. My fishing partners have learned over the years to outfit themselves in a similar way.   I can lift it by myself and it’s easy to pull on foot or with any ATV/UTV. LED lights, some air circulation fans, a USB power pack, and a small heater and I am in business.

Ice Augers

Augers have literally been revolutionized over the last three years.  Combustion engines are nearly phased out. A modern 6-inch cordless drill-based auger is light, reliable and will cut ice at an incredible rate.  There is no perch that swims in the prairie that you can’t land through a six-inch hole. Prove me wrong.  

The most important piece of hardware is your auger. No hole = no fishing.  There are arguments and discussions all over the online community today but there is no right or wrong answer.  There are lots of great cordless drills, and a myriad of ice augers available they all work, they are all fast.   

The only consideration for me is shaver blades versus chipper blades.  Shaver blades are fast, very fast. These blades rip through the ice but they are also fickle. If you hit some mud, sand or any sort of debris your day is over.  What do I use? My primary drill is a Dewalt DCD996 with a 9MAH battery paired with a 6-inch k drill. I don’t know how much ice I can shred with this but I have never come close to running out of battery in a day.  I also use the lazer light flight 8” with great confidence. It’s fast. 

Perch Ice Fishing Rods

I am a stickler for high-quality perch rods. Depending on the pattern and presentation, I use a myriad of perch ice rods.  The Thorne panfish sweetheart, quiverstick, sweet thing, and perch sweetheart are rock-solid choices. If I could only pick a single rod it would be the Thorne panfish sweetheart. In my mind, it’s the finest panfish rod ever made.   Recently I have been giving the Tuned Up Custom Fusion some ice time. They are nice perch ice rods as well.  

Deadsticks for Ice Fishing

Sometimes the best way to fish perch in the winter is to leave them be and deadstick the rod.

Perch Ice Reels

I’m slowly converting my fleet of ice fishing reels over to inline direct-drive reels. The advantages are numerous.   Line twist is an issue with spinning reels, especially lightweight ones. When trying to entice jumbo perch that have been gorging on freshwater shrimp all day to bite, the last thing I want is my jig spinning around down there.  

These reels also have very smooth and reliable drag systems.  I have found that these inline reels, regardless of brand, are largely similar in construction.  I use a fairly affordable brand, Fiblink, and before they hit the ice I take them apart, remove all heavy gear lube and replace them with HT blue lube.  

It’s the little things that can make a difference when ice fishing for perch.

Ice Fishing Line of Choice

The vast majority of my perch ice fishing is done with 3 lb and 5 lb superline. It’s thin, it has no memory and it’s very strong. I used 2 lb mono for the longest time and I made an effort to give superlines a fair shake. I am confident that superlines result in more hookups than mono.   

If I feel like the water is clear and the perch may be extra sensitive, I always carry a stick or two with 2 lb fluorocarbon to present the smallest of tungsten jigs.

Ice Fishing Electronics

I will tell you right now that I firmly believe that our sonar “pings” and on-ice activity, especially in large groups, affects fish.  

With that being said, I am a huge proponent of classic flashers like the Vexilar FL – 8 and Humminbird Ice 45.  They are reliable, affordable and they give you most of the basic functionality you need. There are advanced options ranging from cameras to Panoptix that can provide value in certain situations, but classic sonar is tough to beat.   

Recently I have changed over to a Humminbird helix unit and I must say that it is an amazing unit that provides me more functionality than I likely need.  

Pile of Jumbos

I highly recommend getting some type of sonar for fishing perch in the wintertime. You’ll catch more fish.

Perch Ice Fishing Lures

When I am searching for jumbo perch, I almost always start out with a Rapala W2 jigging rap with a #12 Mustad red treble, tipped with spikes.  There aren’t many fish that swim that won’t at least take a swipe at this bait. 

Once I know I am on fish I use a variety of baits, but outside of tungsten jigs, most don’t have stock hooks.  Most spoons and lures for ice fishing come with hooks that are way too large and of poor quality. I have #12 and #14 Mustad red trebles in my box by the hundreds. Replace your hooks, gain confidence, catch more fish. 

I am a firm believer in “calling power” as a huge advantage on the ice.  We aren’t in a boat, we aren’t really moving and covering water efficiently.  How do we combat this? Make the fish come to you. 

Lindy darters, chubby darters, Rippin raps, glide baits, blade baits, etc..etc.. all call fish ineffectively.  A great tactic is to remove the hooks from these large baits and add a 2-3” mono dropper to a small treble hook tipped with spikes or a minnow head.  The large bait calls them in and the dangling meat treats seals the deal. …. I could write an entire series of articles on perch ice lures alone.

Jumbo Perch

A true 15″ jumbo perch is rare and should be a prize for any ice angler.

Putting it all together

I like to make the designation between minnow fish and bug fish.  In many of these lakes, the fish are eating scuds, bugs, and invertebrates and don’t react well to minnows. In this case, I will drop down to a tiny tungsten jig tipped with spikes or plastics.  Many times the bait needs to sit perfectly still about 1 inch off of the bottom and stop spinning before these overfed pigs will hit it. 

In other lakes, these fish will roam around in packs of 5-10 perch chasing schools of fathead minnows around.  These fish really react well to minnows and minnow baits but are often very hard to stay on top of.  

When I find a lake with “minnow perch”, I often deploy large spreads of deadsticks. Over the course of the years, I have likely caught more perch over two pounds on fathead minnows on a dead stick with a bare hook then with any other method.  In the day and age of advanced gear, crazy electronics, and information overload, simple tactics often time work best.   

Deadsticks with bare hooks and no electronics can be the ticket to large perch on certain days and on certain lakes

That is ice fishing for perch in a nutshell.  As stated earlier, you can’t catch these jumbo perch if you don’t do your homework and find the right lakes.  From there, the fun begins of catching them. Good luck this winter in search of sumo perch.

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