How to Catch Perch: The Most Widely Distributed Gamefish in North America
Perch are present in nearly every state, so Fishing expert Michael Sw. tells you everything you need to know about the fish so you can catch them yourself.
With a range from Canada’s northwest territories, south to Florida and Texas, and from Washington state all the way to Nova Scotia, the yellow perch is the most widely distributed gamefish in North America. And for good reason as their habitat ranges from small weedy southern ponds up to the Arctic clearwater lakes of northern Canada and all the way down to the brackish waters of the river mouths where the ocean meets the end of the perch’s home waters.
To say this is an adaptable fish is an understatement. Perch are reported in all of the continental United States except Louisiana. They are an even more diverse species than bluegill and can occur in even greater numbers in huge pelagic schools. They tend to reach larger sizes too, with 10-12in fish being common throughout much of their range.
So, What Is a Perch?
A perch or yellow perch, scientific name Perca flavescens, is a member of the family of fish that includes walleye and sauger, though the yellow perch is typically smaller. There is a species of European perch (Perca fluviatilis) that commonly weighs 4-5lbs and even more. The perch we know as the yellow perch in the United States is a bit smaller than that, with sizes ranging from 8in up to 15in. A 2lbs and 15in fish is considered a real trophy in most waters.
Due to their smaller size, they are an important prey species in many of the waters where they live, and their predators include pike, pickerel, bass, and even larger trout. It is because of their prey status that perch are equipped with a series of spikes on many of their fins and gill plates, including a rather sharp and numerous set of spines along both of their dorsal fins. Despite these defenses, perch are a favorite food of these and other gamefish species wherever they are found.
Because they occupy such a wide variety of habitats, the perch will readily strike at lures and baits throughout the year. They are even one of the more popular species of gamefish targeted by anglers fishing through the ice in winter. However, it is not always as simple as casting blindly into a pond with a worm in order to have a decent stringer of perch for the fryer, as perch go through a series of seasonal and even daily movements and migrations, especially in the larger rivers, impoundments, and reservoirs where they are found throughout the year. Having a simple understanding of these perch movements and seasonal patterns will keep you catching the big perch, or jumbos, as they are known among perch fisherman.
Fishing for Perch
Okay. Sounds complicated. Luckily for us, it doesn’t have to be. Being one of the most abundant and widely distributed freshwater fish has its advantages for us fishermen. Perch fishing can be as simple as a sinker with a hook tipped with any live bait, from small fish like minnows to worms, pieces of freshwater clams, small crayfish, crickets, and mealworms. Nearly any live or dead fresh bait will catch perch when placed in front of them. They also readily strike a number of artificial lures, from a spinner or small spoon to a jig head with an artificial minnow or aquatic insect imitation.
Perch spawn in early to late spring throughout their range—early spring in the southern parts of the range and late spring to early summer to the north. They form large schools along the shoreline and lay their eggs on downed timber, weeds, and weed beds. They are very catchable at this time, using smaller jigs or flies suspended from a float or bobber. This can be your best bet for catching a true jumbo perch before they retreat into the deeper waters in the larger reservoirs and impoundments.
In the early spring, try the back of a bay, shoreline edges, and shallow backwaters for perch seeking the warmest waters. In rivers, perch will migrate down to brackish waters and main riverbends after the spawn. Backwaters can be good on the incoming tide in the coves and oxbows of large rivers. In the spring and into the summer months, when perch will settle into a predictable pattern, try spots like points, parks near boat launches, docks, piers, dams, and areas where the water slopes off quickly to deeper water.
In smaller lakes and ponds, time of day is a major factor in perch catching, with early morning and late afternoon being the best times to head out and get a quick stringer of perch for the table or just tying into a bunch of them for fun. In both summer and winter in the smaller lakes, perch often hold at a depth around six inches to a few feet above the muddy bottom during the day, rising up to the surface in the evening to feed on the aquatic insects and juvenile baitfish that are interested in the plankton at the water’s surface. It is this daily up-and-down migration, from the bottom depths up to the edges, that make perch the accessible and readily available panfish that they are.
During the day, it is best to fish the bottom or close to it, dragging deep-running or sinking lures through the depths where the schools of perch sit. Or, you can place your baits on the bottom with a sinker placed about a foot away from the hook to keep the bait on or near the bottom where daytime perch feed.
Later in the day, adjust your techniques to include shallower running minnow and crankbaits, and spinners and spoons reeled in higher in the water column than in the daytime for rising or suspending perch schools, keeping track of the depth fish get hooked or bite at. When a bite does occur, making note of how deep you were fishing will allow you to keep the lure or bait in the middle of the perch school, maximizing your odds of getting another strike and another perch!
Catching perch does not require any fancy equipment. Good perch tackle starts with a simple spinning or spincasting combo that’s 5-6ft long and has ultralight or light action. Additionally, a reel spooled with 4-8lb test line is perfect for perch fishing.
During the day, perch often retire to the outside of weedlines or around structures such as piers or docks. Using lures such as small spoons, spinners, jigs, minnow or insect imitating mini-crankbaits, and plastics will get you a bunch of perch once you locate a school or group of them.
Being a schooling panfish, once there is one perch caught, often there are many more to be had in the same place. Keep casting and feeling for bites with your rig or lure to detect these sometimes light-biting and clever bait-stealing fish. Their delicate nibble can often take your live bait or plastic off the hook without catching you a perch. Other times, they will bite aggressively and you will have a hard time keeping them off your line.
When a bite is detected, set the hook quickly, and if a fish is missed, reel in to check the bait and make sure it is still there before returning it into the water.
Since they’re abundant, it is a great idea to harvest some of the perch you catch for home cooking. Perch are some of the best freshwater fish to eat and combined with their abundance and popularity, it is no wonder they are one of the most sought-after gamefish in North America, giving its larger cousin the walleye a run for its money as table fare.
Now that you understand what perch are and how you might catch them, you’ll feel confident getting out there and catching some of your own! Remember to have fun doing it! If you have any questions about gear recommendations or specific lures, you can always reach out to me or another Curated expert for free, personalized advice.