By Wil Wegman - Yellow perch are the most popular and abundant sport fish found in lakes Simcoe and Couchiching!
Part of this popularity is directly linked to the long-standing Orillia Perch Festival that, more than any other event, has promoted this wonderful species far and wide since 1980. The Festival, being held this year from April 20 to May 11, has long been recognized as one of the largest registered fishing derbies in Canada, attracting anglers of all ages from across southern and central Ontario, as well bordering states such as Michigan and New York.
Although northern pike, lake trout, whitefish and bass may all grow bigger and fight harder, more people come to fish perch than any other species. Fortunately, the prolific waters of Simcoe and ‘Cooch’ have been able to sustain the fishing pressure and they still support one of the finest recreational perch fisheries in all of North America.
Where to Find Springtime Perch:
Perch can be an enigma! Some days they are seemingly everywhere they should be in the spring and anxious to gobble down whatever hot enticing bait you are casting. Other days, it’s the exact opposite. You know there are perch down there; sometimes you can actually see them in the crystal-clear waters of Simcoe, Cooch or the historic Atherley Narrows, yet no matter what lure or bait you use, they just don’t seem interested. Conversely, despite how easy they were to locate the last time you were out – they can seemingly vanish on your next visit. This conundrum is what makes the yellow perch so endearing to its many fans. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they taste great and are such scrappy fighters for their size either!
Finding them is definitely a big piece of the puzzle. Action can begin shortly after the ice in the lake is out, or even when some main lake ice is still present. It doesn’t take long, though, once the ice is gone, for perch to begin the spawning ritual. In fact, of all the panfish species we have, perch are the first to begin the annual procreation process each spring. From ice out until the end of April, we first see the smaller male perch move in shallow to spawn, followed shortly after by larger females.
Spawning occurs when water temps are between 6.7-12.2 Degrees C (44-54F). Also, to distinguish themselves from members of the sunfish family, perch are not nest builders nor do they hang around to guard their young. Instead, to ensure enough perch survive, females lay plenty of eggs (10,000 to 40,000 depending on the size of the female). After fertilization by the males, eggs hatch in 11 to 27 days, depending on temperature and other weather conditions. To somewhat safeguard the eggs from various predators, females disperse their eggs in shallows at night or early morning over rooted vegetation, fallen trees, brush or even over sand and gravel where eggs and fry are left to fend for themselves. After the eggs are laid and fertilized, perch often move out or go a bit deeper – in water ranging from 8-15 feet. They can even sit right in the Narrows and become accessible for both those fishing from shore or boat.
One reason the north end of Lake Simcoe and southern Lake Couchiching out from Orillia are so productive every spring is because so much of this ideal spawning habitat exists here. Add to that the common gateway to and from each of these lakes — the Atherley Narrows — and similar to First Nations communities hundreds of years ago, you have an unparalleled water route to fish both lakes. Nearby adjacent bays in either Simcoe or Cooch are prime spring destinations, so it is no wonder so many perch and so many anxious anglers flock to this perch Mecca year after year.
Oftentimes knowing where to look can be as simple as finding where congregations of boats are; chances are they have already found a few schools of perch and as long as you mind your manners and don’t move too close, you’ll be more than welcome to join in the fun. If you’d rather find perch on your own, a good sonar like one of the new Lowrance Gen 3 machines with Chirp technology can help you detect not only perch but the tiny minnows they are chasing as well.
Once you have identified prime spring perch habitat, it doesn’t always mean perch will be present so finding them is the next step. I like to search for them instead of waiting for them to find me, so I keep moving and casting, moving and casting. I have great confidence casting the 2½-inch Rapala X Rap or a Blue Fox inline spinner on four-pound test Suffix Floro with Rapala’s Shift spinning reel and their six-foot nine-inch Medium-Light R Type rod. With an extra fast action, this reasonably priced rod allows for a long cast ahead so as not to spook a wary school of perch. With the super clear waters of both lakes, keeping your distance from fish in shallow water is uber-important.
Hot Lures and Tips to Catch Spring Perch:
It’s a real confidence booster to realize that within a school of perch there is almost always at least a couple of aggressive, hungry members, so I keep working my bait quickly to cover water. Rapala’s relatively new Shadow Rap jerk bait is great for more lethargic perch found in the cold water conditions synonymous with spring fishing. Being able to lunge forward in a jerking motion and then sink back and down, this lure is great for finding deeper schooling perch. Be in no hurry to fish this one though … as perch often hit when it’s just lying still … or try lightly twitching your rod and waiting to see what excitement happens!
Remember, when even one or two nice jumbos attack your suspended jerk bait they have given away the location of the entire school, which undoubtedly makes them very unpopular members of the pack! A hot tip that should put you a step ahead of others is to then realize you may need to throw a marker buoy to pinpoint where the school is. Then you can slow down and cast small jigs like Storm’s 1½-inch Wildeye Pro Paddle Tails or their Pro Curl Tail series directly to where those aggressive perch hit.
Believe it or not, when conditions are tough and you’re not finding any perch by casting, one of the most effective techniques when you’re in water 10-15 feet, is by long line trolling an X Rap or even a Rapala Countdown Minnow. Just like when you find them casting, stop and throw a marker back to where you connected with a legendary Simcoe or Cooch jumbo. Then you can begin casting to them with your favorite jig and grub combo, or borrow a set-up favoured by Simcoe bass anglers; the drop shot rig.
A drop shot rig is ideal when you know where the perch are and you are fairly sure they are not hugging bottom. Adjust the distance between your weight and bait accordingly but generally this will vary between eight to 15 inches or so. I prefer a variety of imitating minnow baits from one to even 2½ inches for the bigger jumbos.
Many Orillia Perch Festival participants are realizing the incredible lifelike appearance and action of soft plastic artificials often produce as well or better than live minnows. Fake baits are far easier to deal with than live shiners so local tackle shops, such as True North Fishing Outfitters at Gilford, Trombly’s Tackle Box in Orillia, or Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods north on Hwy 11, stock up to deal with demand, while still carrying a healthy supply of real minnows.
Orillia Spring Perch Festival and Kids Fishing Perch
Yellow perch are the most prolific panfish in the Lake Simcoe and Couchiching watersheds and during the spring, they typically are not too far from shore, nor too hard to catch. These simple fundamentals enable families to participate in the Orillia Spring Perch Festival either from shore or by boat. Some families will bring their own boats, while others rent one from a nearby marina such as Blue Beacon.
Having admitted that I prefer artificials over live bait, there is still no denying that live bait remains a popular mainstay for many, and without question kids and live bait bobber-fishing go together like bees and honey. So, by all means consider a simple live minnow and slip float rig. You can fine-tune these to present your bait just off bottom – where the perch are most apt to be. Worms will work too, yet you may find them better during summer than spring.
I am a firm believe that in order to get more kids hooked on fishing, they need to catch fish when they go fishing. This simple truth is not intended to put undue pressure on parents or those taking kids fishing but simply to recognize that in order to become truly hooked on the sport, new anglers, regardless of the age should be catching fish and having fun. Success in this form does not have to occur each and every time they go out, however, successful excursions will spark that special memory of another occasion when the perch were cooperative. It’s these recollections of catching fish that override those times we don’t — and keeps all of us looking forward to our next fishing excursion regardless of how old we are.
The more we take kids fishing, the better anglers they will become and the more they will want to go out again. Even more important, you will be teaching your kids sound conservation principles, a respect for the natural ecosystem and hopefully building character individuals who will become stewards and eventually managers of our aquatic resources!
Limits and Selective Harvest
Maximum limits for perch in Lake’s Simcoe and Couchiching are very generous. Those with a Sport Fishing Licence can keep up to 50 daily and have 100 in their possession. Those with a Conservation licence can catch 25 daily and have a 50 possession limit. Unknown to some, is that anglers under 18 years of age (or residents 65 and over) do not require a fishing licence, but they are still permitted to catch their own limits equal to adults holding a full Sport Fishing Licence. Resident kids under 18 therefore do not have to fish with a licensed adult; non-resident anglers under 18 may fish without a licence if accompanied by a person who has a valid fishing licence. Any fish kept are part of the catch and possession limit of the person with the licence. Another option though is for non-Canadian residents under 18 to purchase their own licence so that they can catch and retain limits on their own.
Fortunately, today most people realize success is not based on an ability to bring home a limit. Keeping a few of the nicest 8- to 11-inchers for a meal or two and releasing the rest will be your personal contribution to sustaining the high quality fishery we have. Perhaps just as important is that releasing those extra-large perch over a foot also sets a great example for our future generation of anglers so that they too will play their role to conserve this great fishery for years to come.
Those water temps might still be cold but the perch fishing action can be hot so why not enter the 2019 Orillia Spring Perch Festival. You and your kids are sure to have a blast!
For registration information on the Orillia Perch Festival, go to www.orillia.com
Wil Wegman is the winner of many fishing and writing awards, including a 2017 National Recreational Fisheries Award. He is conservation director for Aurora Bassmasters. His website is www.wilwegman.com.
Photo above, courtesy of Wil Wegman