Early-Ice Perch Jerkin'

Sometimes we get safe ice in November, while other years it takes a little longer to form. But when the lakes finally do freeze, these tactics will help you catch perch right from the get go!

Ted Takasaki from Lindy Legendary Tackle scored a double on early-season perch by targeting major breaklines.
Photo by Noel Vick.

Tiptoeing across early winter's frozen surface isn't usually associated with perch fishing. November and December aren't exactly the months serious perch anglers catch big yellowbellies, the ones with stripes so defined they look like they were grilled.

Instead, early ice is better associated with reckless walleyes and hungry crappies. However, the walleyes and crappies aren't a secret. They draw crowds. And perhaps it's for this reason I get excited about early-ice perch fishing, because the crowds are minimal, and you can do your own thing. Jumbos can be patterned soon after the last whitetail is field dressed, but only if you know what to look for.

The general rule of thumb for first ice is to find a small and shallow lake that freezes early, thus yielding "walkable" ice before the big lakes are ready. That plan is fine for crappies and walleyes, but few are the lakes small in size having big numbers of perch.

I go with the "lake within a lake" theory. It is said that perch, by and large, are fishes of large lakes and freshwater systems. But within these lakes are smaller "lakes," such as bays and or sizable protected shoreline areas that ice up before the "main lake." Locate one of these areas with the right structural elements and forage base, and the groundwork is set for action-packed perching.

In northern natural lakes, shorelines tumble downhill at varying pitches to basins of myriad depths. Early in the winter, jumbo perch set their sights on the first significant shoreline break, where things get deepest the fastest.

Brian "Bro" Brosdahl fishes spots like this all through the Ice Belt as an Ice Team "Power Stick." And he's quick to point out that first breaks occur at varying depths, depending on the type of lake in question.

"On shallow, eutrophic (older and shallower) lakes, that first break is usually somewhere between the 5- and 15-foot mark," Brosdahl said. "But don't get hung up on the actual depth of the break. Focus more on its steepness. Perch gravitate to bottoms that crash quickly. That's key."

On younger, deeper lakes (mesotropic), Brosdahl said major shoreline breaks typically set up in 25 to 40 feet of water. But again, don't get duped by depth. Pay more attention to the quality of the break than the actual depth. From a mapping perspective, find chunks of water where the "lines" are tightest. That's where it gets deepest the fastest. In some cases, on maps written with 5-foot increments, the lines literally run together on a quality cliff.

According to Brosdahl, perch use sheer breaks to "crash baitfish." Moreover, sheerer breaks allow fish to cover more depths and features within a smaller footprint. Time and energy are used economically. I'm not here to tell you perch are intellectual critters, but something in their "code" undoubtedly puts them in places where features are many and real estate is fixed.

To make a hard break even better, Brosdahl factors in a healthy hard-to-soft transition, like sand/gravel to rock to mud. Perch are addicted to these areas. The steep and hard-to-soft mixture offers efficient travel and striking lanes, as well as bedding for tasty larval insects.

On seriously large perch fisheries, you can find individual bays -- lake in the lake -- that freeze fast and have advantageous breaks. Those are unrivaled first-ice perch haunts, but not in long supply.

More classically, the "lake in the lake" is a smaller and shallower bay, one without freefalling breaklines.

"This is a minnow thing," said Brosdahl, "and most of the time, a shiner minnow thing. Massive schools of shiners raid the shallows in late fall, after turnover, and they stay through the first part of winter."

And they can be shiners of all creeds and colors, from emeralds to spottails to lake shiners. Point being that the first-ice shiner phenomenon is essentially universal.

Within the bay, shiners and perch gather in greater numbers amid certain features, namely weedbeds, troughs, breaks and bottom-content transitions, such as gravel to sand or sand to rock.

Troughs are a big deal in Brosdahl's world. He likes any unmapped anomaly that attracts fish and he can call his own as he plugs in the GPS coordinates. A trough in a shallow bay often appears as an elongated ditch amidst an otherwise ho-hum flat where depth sinks a couple or three feet and the bottom content alters accordingly, thus getting softer.

So what's all the fuss? Weeds for one. Softer substrates foster greater growth. An example is a trough dug into a sand or gravel flat, which is very common. The surrounding hard flat is bald or scarcely vegetated, whereas the richer trough produces a lush crop of greenery, perhaps coontail or cabbage. Even a spindly clump of weeds will entertain fish when adjacent flats are basically barren.

Virtually any composite set of weeds can hold perch. Autumn is tough on weeds. In most cases, they're brown and down or broken matter by first ice. But in some bays -- and on the main bodies of lakes that don't turn over in the conventional sense -- weeds will persist, thus offering a couple of substantial assets. Weeds provide perch sanctuary from predators. Weeds also provide cover for baitfish. Weeds also harbor crayfish, zooplankton and other snacks. Brosdahl adds to this food-chain menu.

"Perch have a dark side most anglers don't know about," he said. "They eat their own. Big perch eat little perch. Jumbos love snacking on young-of-the-year perch. And weedbeds can be full of perch offspring. There are also baby bluegills and crappies in the weeds -- more perch bait."

And, as luck would have it, most weedbeds are shoreline-oriented, thus offering good early-ice access.

On the downside, early ice isn't easy to deal with. The first coat is always hyper-clear, and it seemingly cracks if you look at it wrong, sending entire food chains scattering across the lake. To help thwart the spook-factor, Brosdahl endorses a program that begins by drilling the heck out of a spot and ending with the StrikeMaster going to bed for the remainder of the day -- hopefully.

"I'll drill up, down and all around the zone, making sure I go shallower and d

eeper than the target," Brosdahl said. "I do not want to touch the auger again once quiet-time starts."

Not that Brosdahl goes out of his way to make noise during the drilling phase, but when it's time to simmer down and let perch settle back into place -- which they will -- he sneaks from hole to hole, not dragging a sled or slamming a bucket down next to a hole. Once at the hole, it's about getting up and down and not wasting time in dead water. Brosdahl hits the ice pre-rigged for the initial drop, toting a couple of combos with well-crafted presentations.

"This is prime time for tumbling baits," he said, with tumbling baits being vertical-ish spoons that fish as much side to side as they do up and down. A customary lead jigging spoon drops down and jigs up, fluttering to some extent, but doesn't reach out and make a commotion. Brosdahl stipulates that a spoon kicks to the left, sometimes to the right.

Brosdahl's new favorite tumbler is the Lindy Flyer Spoon (www.lindylittlejoe.com), a reformatted version of the original Flyer that stands vertical on axis but engages in interpretive dance when sent falling. The Williams Warbler, Dartee and Bay de Noc Vingla perform in similar fashion.

The jigging motion consists of an abrupt snap of the rod followed by a loose-line freefall, with the motion covering at least half the water column in 10 feet of water and less, and 3 or more feet in deeper situations. The goal is to emulate multiple minnows in a state of distress. Consequently, Brosdahl is partial to silver and gold patterns with shiny scales, and if it isn't completely metallic, it will be at least accented with some glint. Plan B calls for wicked fluorescents and glow, like fire-tiger with phosphorescent intonations.

Baiting the spoon isn't scientific, either. The severed head of whatever the local bait shop sells will do. It's more about the spoon than the flavor.

Treat yourself to some fresh filets this winter by passing on the old familiar crappie and walleye spots that look like a circus. The perch are in town, too, but only you know where!

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