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In pursuit of yellow perch

by Warren Illi
| February 2, 2023 12:00 AM

Wow, it’s February and we are past the half- way point in our winter. I always think of the hard or cold core of winter as being January and February. So now that we are over halfway through winter, daylight hours are getting longer, and day temperatures should be getting higher. So, it’s a great time to go ice fishing. Ice fishing is always fun, but more fun when the temperature climbs above 40 and the sun is shining. So, let’s get out on the ice and pursue the No. 1 fish that ice anglers seek, yellow perch.

I’ve never seen a survey of what species of fish and how many fish are caught in Northwest Montana via ice fishing. But I can say with a high degree of certainty, that perch are probably the most frequently caught fish species in Northwest Montana, probably in the winter and perhaps even in the summer. They may also probably represent more fish caught than all other fish species combined.

Why is that? First, perch are widespread. They are virtually in every lake, pond and larger river system in Northwest Montana. A favorite perch lake is Smith Lake, just 9 miles from Kalispell. Perch are also in the Lower Flathead River and its many sloughs, and in Flathead Lake itself. Other nearby large lakes such as Little Bitterroot and Ashley Lake have good perch populations. I know that most of the Thompson Chain of Lakes have perch. Lake Mary Ronan has a great perch population as do the Stillwater Lakes. Perch are everywhere.

Another reason perch are such a popular fishery is that they are easy to catch. They bite easily. Compared to trout or kokanee salmon, perch readily bite on a wide variety of lures and baits. Perch travel and roam our waters in schools of the same year or size class. Once you located a school of larger perch, you normally can catch them by the dozen. Another reason to catch perch is they are great table fare.

Perch are not big fish. It takes a 7-8 inch perch to be the minimal size to keep and filet. I like to keep 8-10 inch size perch. An 11 or 12 inch perch is a jumbo perch and anything over 12-13 inches is a giant. Perch are also very easy to clean. They filet easily. They do not have that nasty Y bone that make northern pike tough to filet, bone-free.

The American species of yellow perch have an European cousin that gets to giant size, several pounds and over 20 inches long. I could suggest we import some of these giant European perch to Montana, but I would probably be lynched by the native fish folks. The current record perch in Montana is a 14.375 inches long, weighed 2.39 pounds and was caught in Lower Stillwater Lake in 2016.


The biggest challenge to catching perch is finding a school of big perch. Perch reproduce readily and prolifically. Depending upon the lake and water, male perch can reproduce within a 2-3 years and females within 3-4 years of age. Spawning takes place at night. Perch are spring spawners in 65 degree water. A single female can produce 10,000 to 40,000 eggs. Eggs are attached to a clear gelatinous strand that drapes from lake vegetation. Males then come along and spread their milt (sperm) on the eggs. The eggs hatch in 11-27 days and hundreds or thousands of young perch emerge and roam the water in schools, in shallow water. Every fish or fish-eating critter in the lake or near the lake, including larger perch, eat young perch. Perch schools are rapidly depleted through predation as those young perch feed lots of other larger fish, diving ducks, gulls, cormorants, other water birds and most other water-oriented critters.

So where do find perch to catch? First, choose almost any lake. Then comes the task of finding schools of large perch. I select a lake with a known perch fishery. Check with your local bait shop for ideas. As you leave the fishing access site, follow the tracks of other anglers onto the ice. Ice fishermen leave lots of evidence of their angling success or failure. If you see a bunch of fishing holes, but no blood, scales or other evidence of fish on the ice, move on. A good spot will likely have numerous holes and evidence of fish being on the ice. Also, don’t hesitate to explore. Generally, look for 6 feet to 20 feet of water depth and weeds. Green weeds are especially good because they are still alive and generating oxygen into the water. I like to fish off the mouth of streams entering a lake. Streams bring new water into lakes with good oxygen content. Use a light line, 4-6 pond test. Fluorocarbon line is very good because it is invisible. Tip the line with a small lead or tungsten jig colored red, chartreuse or white. Tip the jig with a maggot, wax worm or fish eye. Larger lures may yield larger perch. You may have to bore several holes and move around somewhat until you find a school of nice sized perch. When a school of perch comes to your hole, standby for fast action, fun and good eating when you come home.