Face it. You’d rather catch a hard-fighting game fish, like a big bass or northern pike. But when it comes to table fare, you’d rather eat perch. Yellow perch are arguably the tastiest of all freshwater fish. They’re also among the most boring to catch, at least in summer, when many anglers park a boat over a weed bed and hang a couple cane poles over the side. Come winter, though, perch fishing—through the ice—can turn a dull winter afternoon into a fun-filled field day.
In most lakes in the upper Midwest, perch gather in large schools in winter and suspend off bottom in deep water, where they feed on zooplankton and just hang out. They are hard to catch using conventional ice-fishing gear, which is either too heavy to detect their light bites or difficult to work with at depths of 20 feet or more. Savvy hard-water anglers now use specialized tackle to solve the problem of finding and catching these fussy biters at depths of 70 feet or more.
Where legal, go with two jig rods. Drill three holes, put the transducer in the middle hole, and set rods in spring-loaded rod holders in the outside holes.
Some of this gear has been available for years, but it is surprising how many anglers stick with the old tactics and outdated tackle that their grandfathers struggled with.
Get The Right Stuff
Start with a modern ice-fishing rod with power in the butt, a strong, flexible tip and guides big enough to keep from icing up on frigid days. Several manufacturers now make rods designed for this style of fishing. Choose one that will handle lines in the 1- to 4-pound class.
Add an ultralight, open-face spinning reel with a smooth drag. If the drag or gears are balky, replace the heavy grease with powdered graphite, which isn’t temperature sensitive. A reel with a built-in line clip will let you fish a pre-set depth, or you can cinch a bobber stop on your line and slide it to mark the proper depth. If you change locations or if the perch move up or down in the water column, just slide the stop to mark the new depth.
Fill the reel spool almost to the rim with a monofilament line made for ice fishing. The line should be stiff, abrasion resistant and of thin diameter for its pound-test rating. Two-pound is ideal for perch. Go with one-pound if the fish are especially fussy, and four-pound if you are likely to run into walleyes or saugers.
The sinker is the critical link that can spell the difference between a successful outing and a very frustrating one. Use “pencil” sinkers, 6 or 8 inches long. You can buy them in some bait shops and catalogs or make your own out of coat-hanger wire or thin brass rods. Cut them to the desired length, flatten the ends with a hammer and drill a small hole in each end. Sand or buff off any burrs, then attach a snap-swivel to each hole. Tie the line from the rod to one swivel. Tie a short length of line to the other and attach an ice jig to this leader. Make sure the leader and jig together are shorter than the sinker to prevent tangles as the sinker falls.
By mid-winter, be prepared to fish as deep as 70 feet, which is where this jumbo once lurked.
Carry an assortment of jig sizes, shapes and colors. Smaller jigs usually work better, as they approximate the size of the invertebrates perch feed on. On some lakes and on some days, color is critical, but often it is not. Spear a live mayfly larva, red worm, maggot (spike), mousie grub or wax worm on the jig hook. If perch are extremely finicky, sometimes a sliver of colored plastic cut from a tube tail will work better than bait. On waters where there is not much zooplankton, perch feed mostly on minnows. On the Great Lakes, for instance, lake shiners are the bait of choice.
Jigging techniques vary from a slight twitch to a sudden lift of a foot or more. Start by sharply raising the rod tip 6 inches or so, then lower it slowly to let the jig and bait flutter downward. Then hold the rod steady for a moment, twitch it a couple times, wait another second or two, then repeat. Most takes come as the bait falls. When you lift the rod, you simply find the fish is already hooked.
To round out your basic gear, add an auger, an ice skimmer, a bucket or two for rods and fish, a portable shelter and a locator. If the ice is over a foot thick, a power auger will make short work of cutting holes. Some anglers prefer hand augers, however, because they are quieter. In either case, keep a cover on the blade when it is not in use. A razor-sharp auger can gash a rubber boot or slice a tendon in your leg or hand if you’re not careful. An auger that drills a 3- or 4-inch hole is plenty for perch. If you expect game fish, bluegills or crappies as well, choose one that cuts a bigger hole.
There are a number of good portable locators designed for ice fishing. The best have a flasher that changes color as a fish approaches the center of the transducer cone. Perch may suspend anywhere from a few feet off bottom to halfway to the surface, and those at one depth are not likely to move far up or down to chase a bait. Without a locator, you may be in the right spot, but your bait may be hanging untouched 10 feet above or below a school of perch.
A shelter that breaks the wind is a valuable asset on cold, windy days. Even a 10-mph breeze can chill you quickly if you can’t get out of it. Pick one that folds down into a sled that will carry your gear.
Get A Move On
Keep moving until you find the fish. A portable shanty can easily move with you.
That sled/shanty will also make moving easy. An angler with all the right gear who sits on one place waiting for fish to come to him will rarely catch as many perch as the one who moves to find active fish. On an unfamiliar lake, a map and your locator will help you decide where to start.
Look for deep structure, weed beds or mud flats where perch like to congregate. An underwater video camera will show you what’s really down there, but remember its picture is directional, while a locator “sees” a cone that gets broader as the water gets deeper.
If you don’t find perch at your first location, pack up and move to another. If there are other anglers on the lake, watch to see who is catching fish. When you find fishermen who are busy hauling in fish, set up nearby, but don’t crowd them. Most perch schools are big enough to accommodate several angling parties. And since the schools move around, the action often flows in a wave from one side of a group of fishermen to the other.
Drill three holes a few feet apart and put your locator in the middle hole. Spring-loaded rod holders that attach directly to the rod will let you fish with two rods at once, where legal. Set the rods in the two outside holes and lower your jigs to the level of the fish. Push down on one rod, then the other, to keep your jigs moving. When a perch hits one bait, pick up the rod, holder and all, and play the fish.
Anglers throughout the Midwest use variations on these techniques to catch winter perch. Nowhere has this style of fishing caught on better than on Madison, Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. Gene Dellinger, who operates D & S. Bait on the lake’s north shore, shuttles anglers several miles to and from the hot perch spots on a custom-made sled towed by an ATV. He also rents permanent wooden shanties for those who prefer to fish in heated comfort. Dellinger says January and February are his best months. And that’s on one of the state’s most popular summer fishing lakes!
This style of fishing is decidedly high-tech compared to sitting on a bucket with a simple jigging stick. It is far less costly than summer fishing, however, if you factor in a boat and motor. And it’s a great way to ice a few tasty fish dinners at a time of year when there isn’t much else to do outside but move snow around.