Pictured: While other species vacate the bays when water temperatures drop, white perch turn up the heat on fast winter fishing.
It was cold. Not a little numbness-on-your-fingers cold, but bone-chilling freezing – cold enough for saltwater to ice up the guides of the rods. What was I doing out on the Mullica River in 25-degree air temps with local piney, Dave Showell of the Absecon Bay Sportsman?
Well, like any self-respecting angler, we were fishing when most other anglers had packed up the gear until warmer weather returned. Between weathering the 20-knot winds with frosty faces and hard-iced hands, we absolutely lit up white perch—true fat boys of 1 to 2 pounds, filling the cooler for a wintertime feast. If you’re up to facing the cold, here’s how to load up on these fish in the wintertime.
Finding Winter Perch
There are many facets to understanding winter white perch, starting off with where to fish, along with the tide and times to fish. Generally, the white perch fishery in Jersey revolves around South Jersey, from Toms River to Cape May, with a major concentration in the areas of Absecon Bay, Great Egg River, Mullica River, Cohansey River, and Tuckahoe River systems.
In the winter, perch are most active when the water is between 40 and 48 degrees, though they have been known to feed aggressively even when there is ice on back-bay ponds and brackish back coves. Some anglers even fish through the ice for them with tip-ups and jigs when the ice is “safe enough,” but salt-addled, porous ice is not safe no matter how thick it is.
Any sunny day in the late morning and early afternoon on outgoing waters means perch will be biting better since the sun’s rays have had time to warm up the waters in the shallow, dark mudflats. So, there’s no reason to get up at the crack of dawn. Look for backwater flats that run into channels 3 to 12 feet deep. Look for ledges where perch lie and feed as shrimp, crabs and other forage spills over.
Perch are group feeders, and the more you attract to the hooks, the more that will arrive seeking forage. Chumming is key to success when white perch fishing, and a flat of grass or sand shrimp make the perfect chum. Dish a handful over the side every minute or so to get the slick flowing.
Showell starts by anchoring up on a ledge that descends into a channel or ascends up onto a flat, then grabs a flat or two of grass shrimp to start the chum slick, tossing out a handful at a time to get a bite going. The key is to keep the slick going. If there is a break of two minutes or so, the perch may fall out of line and follow another path. You can also douse on a few drops of FinEssence shrimp Oil to spread the scent and call in the fish.
Rigs And Baits
A high-low pill-float rig fixed with size 4 to 6 hooks and a 1-ounce bank sinker are standard perch rigs, though 1/16- to 1/8-ounce Spro Phat Fly jigs tipped with proper baits also work when the fish are feeding toward the bottom of the water column.
Float rigs also succeed when you want to find if the fish are feeding higher or mid-range in the water column. Have a spread of rods set at different depths to see where they are intercepting the slick and react accordingly. Since you are probably chumming with shrimp, they make great baits to start off with. Thread a shrimp on the hook, then ball on three or four more for a shrimp ball bait. Pieces of bloodworms also make great baits – a half-inch piece threaded on the hook with a little bit left to dangle off. You can even opt to use scent-infused Fishbites bloodworms to attract perch. They do stay on the hook through multiple fish nibbles.
White perch hit vigorously, with fire and fury, making for some serious light-tackle fun during the winter months. Since they feed in schools, you may have several rods going off at once, with zipping lines and bending rods all around the boat.
Another option is lighter tackle, such as 6½-foot spinning rods rated for 6- to 12-pounds matched to 3000-class spinning reels, with drags set pretty light but tight enough to turn heads and bring the fish in efficiently. Spool up with 30-pound-test Power Pro braid and tie the rig to the end.
White perch are one of, if not the best-eating fish in New Jersey. Bread these light, flaky fillets with a dusting of flour and Cajun spice, then toss them into a sizzling the frying pan – a purely scrumptious and delectable treat.
In New Jersey salt water, there is no size limit and a 25-fish bag limit on white perch. When keeping some to eat, plan for roughly three fish for each diner. Enjoying them in the middle of winter makes it well worth battling the chill and beating cabin fever.