January 11, 2017
The successful winter fisherman only needs to know two things about yellow perch: They school and they move. Perch naturally separate themselves into same-sized schools (or age-classes, as fisheries biologists prefer to call them) and in order to keep that school of perch fed the fish must move constantly in search of forage. The concept is a simple one (from a perch's point of view) and is the same from the smallest farm pond to the largest freshwater inland sea. It's not enough to just cut a hole, drop 'em a line, and hope they answer. Successful winter perch fishing comes down to pre-trip planning, and that is where most casual anglers go awry.
Any successful ice-fishing foray begins with pre-trip planning. Elements to consider include how to get there (vehicle, snowmobile, ATV or foot power), sonar gear to help find fish and examine bottom structure, fishing tackle including tip-ups, hooks, sinkers, jigging rods and lures, fresh line and bait (minnows, worms, mousies, grubs, etc.), power or hand auger, chisel and skimmer.
The perch may not know what's going on above the ice and so their daily activities won't change much, but anglers need to be prepared for the best and the worst of winter conditions. For that reason, proper clothing for the predicted weather is a must, plus additional protection — extra gloves, facemask, coveralls or windbreaker — against unexpected wind, snow or sleet. A small, portable windbreak or shelter is a good idea in case an expected sunny day suddenly turns stormy.
PICK YOUR SPOT
Most avid winter anglers head for a traditional, proven hotspot where they've caught perch on previous trips. It makes sense that if perch were there in the past they'll be there again in the future. Simple logic suggests that any deep hole, dropoff, sunken channel or sloping bottom will provide good fishing for at least part of the day.
Cut the initial series of holes perpendicular to shore and then set baits, or jig using lures at varying depths. Roving schools of perch will show up eventually, in fact sooner rather than later in most small ponds, lakes and protected bays, but on larger, more expansive waters a school may make one exciting, productive pass and then disappear for the rest of the day. That is where the angler needs to make a decision: Should I sit and wait or should I take action?
The fisherman who is packed and ready to move will catch the most perch on any given day. Sonar gear will reveal where the best bottom structure is located, as well as where schools of perch are temporarily suspended, but when the screen is empty and vacant it only makes sense to move on.
A fisherman using a snowmobile or ATV obviously can cover a lot more ice than the foot-bound angler, but the strategy is the same: Cut a hole, prospect with the sonar rig and either set up to fish or move on. If there is no structure below and no evidence of schooling perch or baitfish, pack up and try another spot. It may be necessary to cut-and-look several times before a good spot is found, but experienced perch prospectors can cut a hole and survey the bottom in 5 minutes or less.
Considering the size of the lake and that there are likely to be several age-class schools of perch roaming the depths in search of forage, it's more than certain that a fishable school will be encountered in short order. The key is to focus on places where schooling baitfish can be found. Find them and the perch will find you!
Most major lakes in ice-fishing country have been surveyed and mapped by state fisheries divisions, which provide downloadable maps on their Web sites. Just as a deer hunter patterns a big buck, the perch fisherman can study a bottom-structure map and all but guarantee that perch will be found close to the most obvious points of interest including steep dropoffs, rocky points, ledges, submerged islands and deep channels.
These and other maps, which usually are available for sale at local tackle shops, provide GPS coordinates for each bottom feature of interest to perch fishermen. From these it's a simple matter of going from way point to way point, checking for schools of perch and then setting up to catch them.
Of course, when a series of bottom features suggests that the perch schools are following baitfish in an obvious pattern, it makes sense to get ahead of the school and be there, baits and lures at the ready, when the swarms of perch come through.
Anglers who fish the same waters year after year soon learn to pattern their perch, which is why local fishermen invariably target specific areas with semi-permanent shacks and shanties. Mobile fishermen new to a lake can enjoy even greater success by following the bottom structure patterns and staying with the schools of larger fish throughout the day.
DEALING WITH DEPTHS
While the bottom structure of any given lake is not likely to change over time, the depths at which schools of perch travel are definitely subject to change. Barometric pressure is most likely to affect how deep the fish (and their forage species) will be, and pressures can change over the course of the day, especially when winter storms are coming or going in rapid succession.
When sonar images indicate good bottom structure and the presence of baitfish, it's best to set initial baits and lures at varying depths until the perch start hitting in earnest. Set your baits or jig at 5-foot intervals from top to bottom and monitor the productivity of each offering until a pattern develops. If all the fish are being taken at 20 feet, for example, drop all lines to that depth for as long as the action continues. A small school of perch may breeze past in just a few minutes, but extremely large, dense schools of larger fish may provide regular action for several hours.
If the forage base is ample, there will be schools of differing age-classes cruising past the same bottom structure all day long. That is why anglers may end the day with perch ranging from 6 to 16 inches in length. The forage "highway" was wide and broad enough to keep several age-classes of fish busy for several hours.
Of course, no school of baitfish or perch is going to stay in the same place indefinitely — that's simply not the nature of schooling fish. When the forage species move on, the perch and other predators will be right behind them, and so it goes under the ice all winter long. The difference in location can be depth-related (the fish simply school higher or lower in the water column) as is the case in small lakes and ponds, or the fish may travel several hundred yards, even miles, to the next major forage base.
When the action noticeably slows or stops, the ice-angler needs to make a decision: Sit tight and hope for another school of hungry perch to come along, or pack up and find a new, more productive spot. Fishermen who have mastered pre-trip planning, pack for hit-and-run fishing and who can make the tough decisions ("Should I stay or should I go?") will catch the most and the biggest perch this winter.
VARY YOUR BAIT OFFERINGS
Rick Ouellette, a veteran North Country perch fisherman, advises anglers to mix it up when considering baits and lures for winter perch.
"Sometimes basic small minnows will do the trick," Ouellette said, "but there have been times when the perch would take only worms, grubs or certain lures. It's best to bring everything you have that's small, flashy and lively."
Ouellette also said that pieces of perch, such as eyes, pectoral fins or belly strips often take more fish than standard, traditional baits.
"Keep experimenting until you come up with a winner," he said.