Prairie JUMBO Perch Ice Fishing – What You Need to Know

This is a 2-part Article Series.  There is so much good information, I didn’t want them split up.

Here they are below:

First, The Basics of Jumbo Perch Ice Fishing (Feb. 2020).

Second, Fine Tuning your Approach to Catching Jumbo Perch (Feb 2021)

The Basics of Jumbo Perch Ice Fishing

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.

Jumbo 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 than 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.

Mobile Ice Fishing
This winter, the ability to be mobile made a huge difference for jumbo perch ice fishing…

Fine Tuning your Approach to Catching Jumbo Perch

2020-2021 has been a great season for Jumbo Perch on the prairie.  The moderate temperatures and unstable ice has kept most vehicle traffic at bay and allowed many lakes a reprieve from pressure.  

I have been working on foot or being very careful with ATV, with open water lasting well into mid-January.  With the recent cold temps, I am hopeful that ice safety will improve. The fishing has been very strong this winter so far and it has made me focus more on fishing efficiently,  catching as many fish as I can as quickly as I can to maximize my time, comfort, and fun on the ice. 

There are many things that can be done before you leave your house.  

  • Do your research and develop a plan for your trip.  There is a myriad of online resources to help you make an informed decision.   
  • Organize and check your gear.  Replace frayed lines, make sure all your rods are untangled and stowed away properly.   I store mine in hard cases with rod socks on them to avoid tangles.  Celsius makes an ice lure wrap that keeps hooks from tangling and they work fantastic. You want to be prepared and ready when you hit the ice.  You can easily make your own short rod socks for ice fishing with braided sleeving like techflex and some heat shrink tubing.  
  • Check your auger blades, are they sharp and ready?  Some drills, like K-Drill, offer free sharpening. It pays to buy an extra set of blades and always have one freshly sharpened set ready. 
  • Make sure all of your batteries are on their chargers so they will be ready for your trip.  Personally, I am reliant on battery power for the most basic of ice fishing functions, drilling holes.  If my drill batteries aren’t functional I am not drilling holes and I am not ice fishing.   Sonar batteries should also be charged to full capacity and be replaced as needed.  Replace your batteries, especially on sonars every couple of seasons, don’t run a 10-year-old battery on your sonar. I don’t skimp on my batteries, I use large-capacity batteries on my drills and sonar units.
Dewalt Ice Fishing Battery
This battery will drill a lot of holes.

Gearing up for Jumbo Perch Fishing

Nothing will end an ice fishing trip as quickly as not being dressed properly or not being able to move around on the ice as you need. This season I finally bought a jacket/parka designed specifically for ice fishing and it has proven very comfortable and reliable.  

Get yourself some good lightweight cold weather boots and add a reliable cleat system.  I haven’t found anything that compares to the Korker BOA system to this point.  I leave them on my boots all season and they never fail me.  

A nice reliable pair of neoprene gloves with flip-up fingertips is also very handy in my experience.  

Check your heaters and make sure they are functional and that you have adequate fuel for them.  Personally, I use the buddy series by Mr. Heater so I like to make sure I always have an adequate supply of fuel on hand for my heaters. 

Big Perch While Ice Fishing
The best jumbo perch fisheries usually can only take so much pressure. Keep that in mind when you strike gold.

Time to Start Fishing for Jumbos

Once you arrive and have your holes drilled take your time to organize your area. 

Set your sonar up in a convenient spot with a good viewing angle. Make sure your heater is functioning and out of the way, turn on lights, fans, and whatever else you need.   Make sure your rods and gear are accessible and that you are ready to fish.  Take your coat off and get comfortable and stay a while!   

I know it’s tempting to just start fishing and set up afterward but I have found taking the time to get set up properly is always worth it.  I like to fill a five-gallon bucket with ice and slush to keep my fish in as well. 

Perch often roam in schools and chase baitfish, invertebrates,  leeches (yes leeches), shrimp, or whatever they are eating.  I like to think of them as schools of Piranha. If you can keep them under you, keep them interested and be efficient, you can catch loads of prairie gold.  

You want to get up and down as quickly as possible and bucket some perch. Live bait while very effective at times is terribly inefficient. With live bait if you miss a bite the first thing you do is reel in to check bait…with artificials, you stay down and get that next bite.  

I work the plastics with a series of short hops to draw fish in. When fish are investigating I like to try and make the bait “quiver” so the small plastic tail starts to vibrate and wiggle.  This seems to really drive the fish to bite.

Soft Plastic Assortment
Try using soft plastics for fishing jumbo perch this winter, you’ll be pleased with the results…

While trying to catch as many perch as possible as quickly as possible I really started to hone in on two different styles of baits: swimbaits and plastics.  

On the swimbait side, if I am going untipped I will lean towards the Salmo chubby darter more than other similar baits.  The lead-based swimbaits while all the rage right now,  just don’t provide natural movement under the ice the way I want, they are too mechanical, heavy, and jerky. 

The Chubby Darter is perfectly balanced and buoyant, it makes natural movements when worked.  

Red Chubby Darter for Perch
This red Chubby Darter has been deadly this winter on jumbo perch.

A Lindy Darter is also a fantastic option that I have had good success with. 

One thing to note is that these lures have very small very sharp treble hooks and they stick perch and humans really well. Have pliers handy because you are going to need them to remove these trebles safely and efficiently when you stick a fish.

I like to use an aggressive jigging motion with this bait if there are no fish on the screen.  

Rip it up hard enough to feel the bait vibrate and then let it freefall back to the original position. This will help call in fish from afar.  To entice a bite I like to lightly jiggle the bait like a rocking horse type of motion. 

I spent some time working these lures in clear water to visually see what the movements look like. This helped me gain some perspective on how I want to work with them. 

The goal here is to be in the water catching perch as much as possible.  

Make sure you have a hook-removing tool and a line-cutting tool handy at all times.  The last thing you want is to be taking too much time removing a razor-sharp treble from a perch, or yourself, while there are perch on the chomp below.

Fishing Line Cutter

As far as plastics go the options are endless. You can mimic virtually anything that perch eat but I really like the baits that mimic small minnows, freshwater shrimp, or larvae/maggots.  

Again, here one of the keys is to keep it light, you don’t want a massive jig head with a small plastic.  A very small 1/64 or smaller head with a razor-sharp thin wire hook is what you want.  

Some of my favorite baits are the 13 fishing Paralyzer and the HoleHoppers Custom Nano

Final Jumbo Perch Ice Fishing Recap

To me, there’s nothing like ice fishing for jumbo perch.  It’s one of my favorite past times, and I share it with my family.  Perch is one of my favorite fish to eat as well.  There are so many ways to enjoy the fillets and even cheek meat on the JUMBOs…

So take a kid perch fishing, especially when you’re on a hot bite.  Kids get hooked on action, no pun intended.

Jumbo Perch Recipe

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