Michigan’s west coast has many unique angling opportunities because of its connection with Lake Michigan. One of the most popular is yellow perch that flood into the drowned river mouth lakes during the fall and winter. These perch look different than the resident populations that live in the lakes all year; they are a pale white color and more slender. While it’s extremely popular to target them out of boats before the ice comes and immediately after it leaves, we are going to focus on the winter fishery happening now.
There definitely is some debate on exactly why they migrate from Lake Michigan into lakes like White, Muskegon, Pere Marquette and Portage (just to name a few). I believe it is to take advantage of these productive lakes and feed heavily. I also believe most of them go back out to spawn. But whatever the reason they’ve come in for, they prefer deep water (30-60 feet).
That opens up a whole lot of habitat for them in many of these lakes. Much of it is just a featureless mud bottom so it can be difficult to decide where to start. However, a GPS and a good mapping chip will reveal a lot of likely deep breaks and basins in the lakes. I like to start my search around possible deep breaks and go deeper from there. Often you can dial into whether they are relating to the break or are off the deep side of it. From there, you can replicate that pattern throughout the lake in search of the best schools.
This is a popular activity and you can take your chances with many of the shanty towns that form on these lakes. Many people set up camp, have a good time, and wait and see what happens. Generally, this strategy will put you around a few perch but consistently catching limits is going to take a lot more work. The weather can be brutal and doesn’t always allow for a fully mobile strategy. But when it does, it is best to keep moving until you find a bunch of fish. There are huge schools to be seen but be prepared to put in the time and effort to dial them in and relocate them frequently.
I find it best to keep it simple while searching using a Clam Speed Spoon tipped with spikes. Spikes stay on the hook well and the speed spoon gets down fast, so little time is wasted. Once it’s time to settle in on a school there are a whole bunch of presentations that will work. Perch rigs, jigging raps, spoons, and heavy tungsten jigs are all productive tactics. Add plastic, wigglers, minnows, minnow heads, waxworms, spikes, and perch eyes to sweeten the deal. It can be really important to have a few different options if the bite has been off or the weather is going keep you hunkered down.
I also think it’s important to have specialized gear for catching these light biters in deep water. I definitely believe in braided line for it’s no stretch properties which improves hooksets and increases sensitivity. It’s also important to have a braid that is super thin like Clam Frost Braid, not because the fish are seeing it but because it will help your bait fall faster to an active school. Being quick and efficient is everything when it comes to capitalizing on the short feeding frenzies that occur. The right rod is the next critical element in the setup. Something with a backbone is needed to set the hook in that deep water but it also needs an extremely sensitive tip to detect light bites. Clam Jason Mitchell Meat Sticks are about as perfect as it’s going to get for a deepwater perching rod.
While there are a lot more tips and tactics that will help you be successful, here are a few important thoughts. Keep a deadstick rod in the water once a school is located, perch will readily take a bait that is doing absolutely nothing. However, with a rod you are actively jigging, attempt to call them up from the bottom. If you can get a perch looking upward and moving up towards the bait in the water column, it is much more likely to bite. Lastly be prepared to make small moves within a productive area, if the school gets stagnant and just starts staring at the baits. A move as little as 20 feet can produce a bunch of quick bites.
We’ve been lucky with a great ice season so far in West Michigan and there’s plenty of time left to get out and enjoy this amazing fishery. It is well worth the trip and the fishing will only improve as we approach March.