Emerald Shiners, spot-tail shiners, red-tail chubs, bluntnose minnows, alewives, threadfin and gizzard shad, crawfish, hellgrammites and round gobies. The forage preferences of smallmouth bass throughout the country are well-known to most bass anglers.But if you talk to some smallmouth anglers in the Northeast, they will tell you something is missing from the list."Perch," says professional angler Mark Burgess of Massachusetts. "Many anglers associate yellow perch as prey for walleye. Other anglers insist smallmouth prefer soft-ray baitfish rather than spiny ones like perch. Forget all that. I'm here to tell you that smallmouth bass eat yellow perch."
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Some bass fishermen know about it, some don't. But in particular Northern waters at certain times of the year, smallmouth bass feast on yellow perch. This is especially true in periods of cooler water temperatures. In the fall and early spring, when shallow water interaction is greatest between the two species, many smallmouth gorge themselves on perch to the exclusion of other prey.In explaining the phenomenon, Burgess reminds us that yellow perch school by size and that the schools are quite large in the fall. Furthermore, as the water cools, perch move shallow at the same time as smallmouth. Keep in mind that smallmouth are opportunistic feeders; if a massive supply of appropriate-size food is available at the same depths that smallmouth are roaming, it stands to reason those bass are going to eat them.
Bassmaster Elite angler Frank Scalish concurs. "I've encountered it on Lake Erie, Chautauqua Lake, Lake Oneida and Lake Champlain — natural lakes with strong perch and strong smallmouth populations. Figure out where the perch and smallmouth intersect, throw a perch-imitating bait and reap the rewards."Scalish painfully recalls a Bassmaster event on Oneida a few years ago. He encountered smallmouth feeding on perch in shallow water during practice. Come tournament day, he threw a perch-finish crankbait of his design in the area and landed 35 smallies in a row. Without a perch-colored bait to throw, his boat partner didn't score a single bass."I was catching them two at a time," exclaims Scalish. "That was one of the best big-fish limits I had ever put together in such a short time, and it would have put me in contention to win — if my boat had not broken down on the way to weigh-in!"Although it may be more of a Northeast and Great Lakes phenomenon than an overall Northern pattern, Scalish says it happens in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and southern Ontario. But talk to bass anglers in the upper Midwest or mid-South about a smallmouth-perch scenario and you'll get blank stares.Northern grass lakes are the easiest to pattern when perch and smallmouth interact, according to Scalish. "On natural lakes where weedbeds have defined inside and outside edges with compacted sand or rock also in the shallows, I find smallmouth and young perch mixing it up at times throughout the summer because they are sharing the same habitat."But things really kick into high gear in fall when bigger bass come up to feed. That's when I concentrate my cranking on the deepest grass growth, paying particular attention to inside turns and extended tapering points."However, Scalish says that if the lake has a good perch population but does not have large grass flats, finding them can be more difficult because the perch may be anywhere — typically on ledges at depths that may require a different presentation such as a leadhead or drop shot rig."This is where your ability to read sonar becomes critical. In deep water, inactive perch have a tendency to stack up vertically in the water column. They will often appear as a Christmas tree, making them easy to identify. Find the perch and you find smallmouth."
According to Scalish and Burgess, the ideal-size perch for smallmouth is 4 to 8 inches. Knowing that perch school by size, if you start catching jumbo 12-inch perch, it's a sign you should look elsewhere — unless you want to take home a perch dinner!
When I find a school of perch, I expect to get bit by a smallmouth bass at any time," states Burgess emphatically. He says smallmouth will dine on perch throughout the spring and summer on waters in New England.In the spring on Lake Winnipesaukee, perch begin moving toward the shallows from the 30- to 60-foot depths at the same time as smallmouth. They may be in 25 to 20 feet shortly after ice-out, and then in 10 to 5 feet a few days later."When I'm having difficulty determining the exact location of smallmouth as they move shallower at this time of year, I know if I find perch then the chance of catching smallmouth rises immensely. I can't tell you how many times I've hooked a perch on a tube or Sonar, brought it to the boat, only to see four or five big brown shadows following it. A struggling perch is like turning on a light switch for smallmouth."For several summers Burgess assisted at the Bryan Kerchal Fishing Camp on Connecticut's Candlewood Lake. There was a strong perch-smallmouth relationship that really helped kids catch their first bass. "I would take a couple kids in my boat to an offshore hump with weeds on it. First, I would start off the kids using live bait to catch perch because that was guaranteed quick action. Once perch were being caught, I had the kids drop a tube jig down and 'wham,' they would hook a smallmouth!"In the fall, the predator-prey relationship between smallmouth and perch switches into high gear. Burgess typically finds perch in 27 to 32 feet in August. But as the water cools in September, the perch move up into less than 10 feet of water, smallmouth key in on them and a tremendous power bite turns on."The bite gets stronger as the water continues to cool," notes Burgess. "But an unexpected warming trend can throw a monkey wrench into the pattern."Burgess employs a selection of shallow water lures in perch-like colors. He considers the best color schemes to be dark green backs with yellowish or gold highlights on the sides and a strong orange accent somewhere on the body.A perch-colored Super Rogue or Long A are among his favorites. He fishes these floating jerkbaits with varying cadence until bass give their approval by striking. A Booyah Spinnerbait with gold blades and a custom skirt runs a close second."The stock Gold Shiner is a good choice for the spinnerbait, but I prefer to replace the skirt with a special handmade one that includes green, red, orange and gold in it."Another of his picks is a Super Spook in the Golden Shiner finish — reflective gold sides with orange belly. "This is a big, bold bait that intimidates some fishermen," acknowledges Burgess. "But it does not intimidate smallmouth that are feeding on perch."When bass are deeper than the shallow running baits can reach, Burgess grabs a tube jig. "Should a smallmouth spit up a perch, the baitfish will lack the vibrant colors that we recognize — it's washed out. But a watermelon/gold flake tube is spot on for a dead perch. To complete the look, I tip the tentacles with a dab of orange marker."If the tube makes it to the bottom without being sucked up, Burgess fishes it by ripping it up and letting it fall back.
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Early on when he stumbled into the smallmouth-perch bite, Scalish also discovered that when smallies spit up perch in the livewell, the perch are different than ones swimming in the water. "I first noticed this a long time ago on Chautauqua. When smallmouth threw up little perch, the preyfish were pale gray with barely visible darker bars. The yellow and gold pigments were gone. That's when I started tinkering with creating a color pattern to match these regurgitated perch."Scalish considered that if the yellow/gold color faded that quickly, maybe it really wasn't visible to smallmouth under water. Besides, every angler realizes that when bass are gorging on baitfish, some will be spit up and nearby bass are going to grab the pale version. Regardless of the reason, Scalish developed what some refer to as a ghost perch pattern."Some manufacturers have very realistic perch paint jobs on their crankbaits, but I don't think an exact replica is necessary," explains Scalish. "The key to a perch pattern is a dark greenish back with five or six prominent dark vertical bars and a splash of orange on the chin. My hand-painted No. 6 and No. 7 Fat Free Shads are not how we see perch, but how I believe smallmouth see perch in the water."When something other than a crankbait is called for, Scalish turns to a 5-inch watermelon Yum Dinger with a marker-placed orange stripe on the belly. He fishes it on either a drop shot rig or a jighead."Spinnerbaits with gold blades are very effective, too. On a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait, I install smaller than stock blades so I can burn the lure and still keep it under the surface. My skirts are three layers with dark green top, blue glimmer sides and four strands of orange on the belly."
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Both pros agree that when using perch-pattern baits, the angler usually eliminates strikes from small bass. "It takes a good-size smallmouth to get its mouth around a 6- or 7-inch perch," adds Burgess.Asked if smallmouth go off perch at some point in the fall, Burgess could not answer definitively. "I'm not sure they stop feeding on perch. If bass and prey are in the same area, smallmouth may continue to consume perch through the winter under the ice. I do know that smallmouth are eating perch shortly after ice-out in the spring."Scalish and Burgess are confident in the use of perch-pattern baits on selected Northern lakes. But they do not believe that every bronze bass in a lake is dialed in solely on perch. Most of these fisheries support a diverse forage base including crawfish and other baitfish species. Segments of the smallmouth population certainly pursue other options.However, the perch connection is obvious during the fall; and it may seem that for a short period, it's the only game in town. Given the experience of these anglers, if you plan to fish lakes in the Northeast for smallmouth, then you best bring the perch baits!