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Great Lakes Yellow Bellies

By Mark Romanack

Tony Puccio of Bait Rigs Tackle is one of the author’s perchin’
buddies. These slabs were taken on Lake Erie in Ontario waters.


When I was a kid, the Great Lakes were known better for yellow perch than they were trout or salmon. I’m dating myself a little, but I can remember countless Friday night fish fries that featured yellow perch. I can also remember when the cost of a quality perch dinner was something Dad could afford to order for the whole family.

The days of the affordable perch dinner may be gone, but the Great Lakes continue to produce yellow bellies you can catch yourself.

Ironically, It seems that interest in perch fishing has declined a little due to the outstanding walleye and salmon fishing the Great Lakes offer.

For those who still enjoy the small but tasty yellow perch, some great fishing is found on Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and also Saginaw Bay. 

A number of environmental changes have impacted in a positive way on these fisheries. Improved water clarity is one of those changes that has benefited the yellow perch. Clear water allows sunlight to penetrate to greater depths and has enabled weed growth to expand and provide additional cover. 

In addition to clear water, the Great Lakes have seen a substantial reduction in toxic chemical and heavy metal pollution during the past three decades. Lower levels of toxins in the watershed has allowed aquatic insects to once again thrive in many parts of the Great Lakes. Mayflies and many other delicate aquatic insects are a major food source for perch. These same aquatic insects are also a major food source for the many species of minnows that perch feed on as adults. 

Another turn of events is also benefiting the yellow perch. As the Great Lakes waters have slowly become clearer, the environment has become less suitable for an evasive species known as the alewife. Alewives aggressively feed on newly hatched fish called fry. Many biologists believe that the decline of alewives in some Great Lakes waters has allowed yellow perch numbers to rebound.

Great Lakes perch like this Lake Erie “jumbo” are amazingly abundant
if you know where to look and how to catch them.


To catch perch you must understand the species. Like their cousin the walleye, perch are constantly on the move in search of food. To keep a perch interested in a particular spot, there must be food available.

One of the keys to fishing for perch is to keep as much bait in the water as possible. Spreader rigs that incorporate two hooks help to keep bait in the water. It’s also a good idea to fish two rods per angler and also to have several anglers on board. The more lines and bait in the water, the better the perch fishing is likely to be for everyone on board.

Fishing perch with live bait is a job that’s best accomplished from an anchored position. Before anchoring the boat however, spend a little time cruising around and monitoring the sonar unit. Yellow perch can be difficult to locate on a monochrome sonar screen because the fish are typically so close to bottom they blend into the bottom signal. Color sonar units are a great aid in locating perch schools. The perch mark as orange or yellow, making it easy spot fish against the darker bottom signal.

Once a school of perch has been located, anchor up and fish for at least a half hour. If after 30 minutes the action isn’t steady, pull the anchor and start searching for another school.

The Anchor Wizard produced in Evart, Michigan is hands down the best small boat anchoring system on the market. Check out this unique product at


Fishing two rods at once is a good way to keep
more bait in the water and the perch from
wandering away. Holding one rod in your hand
and keeping a second in a handy mounted
rod holder is another great option.


Hovering in place using an electric motor like the MotorGuide Xi5 is another excellent way of positioning a boat over top of active schools of perch. The anchor mode in the Xi5 can be activated with a single push of a button on the key fob controller, making it super simple to cruise around slowly with the electric motor while hunting for fish and then hover on those fish once they are found. For more information on the Xi5 go to

Rod holders are the most practical way to spread out and organize rods for perch fishing. Angling the rod holder so it’s parallel with the water surface helps to spread out lines and cover a little more water. It’s also easier to detect the subtle perch bites by reading the rod tips, than by feeling for the bite.

The classic two hook bottom rig has taken countless yellow perch and continues to be effective. A new kind of perch rig is gaining in popularity across the Great Lakes. Instead of having the weight on the bottom and two hooks suspended above, this new rig is formed of a curved piece of wire shaped like a hoop. The weight is in the middle of the wire and the snell hooks attach at each end of the wire hoop.

Instead of setting the weight on bottom like other perch rigs, the trick is to lower this rig until it hits the bottom, then reel up about 12-18 inches of line. This presents the snell hooks a few inches off bottom. Because the rig tips back and forth as the boat rocks, perch can suck in the minnow without feeling any resistance. By the time the rod telegraphs a bite, the fish is usually already hooked.

It’s hard to beat a  mess of perch like this. Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie
and Lake St. Clair are still the best bets for anglers who love to catch
lots of perch and big perch.


One last tip might surprise a few readers. When perch fishing it’s best to keep your engine running while fishing. The motor vibrations entering the water tend to attract perch and help hold them in the area. It sounds strange, but the best perch anglers never turn off the engine.

Yellow perch are one of the Great Lakes greatest treasures. Abundant, easy to catch and absolutely delicious on the table, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend time outdoors than doing a little perch jerkin’.

Blog post courtesy of Fishing 411 - Check them out at


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