Perch are winter's fish. Walleye, northern pike, bluegill and crappie are pursued in all seasons, but perch in most lakes are pretty much left alone until ice covers the surface. When that happens, legions of anglers throughout the Upper Midwest suddenly turn once again to perch, which taste just as good as their more famous cousin, the walleye.
Why do so many anglers wait for winter to focus on perch? Look at it this way: know anybody who fishes bass through the ice? Sure, a dedicated bunch hits Chequamegon Bay in Wisconsin for smallies, but in most places bass are forgotten when the ice freezes. Perch and bass, therefore, are at opposite ends of the fishing spectrum.
The essentials for successful winter perch fishing are basic. Most days 4-pound Berkley monofilament line, split shot and a plain hook are all that's needed to get in on the action. But first you must find a lake with perch. Yes, nearly every lake has perch, but we're talking the jumbo variety, perch 10 inches and longer, the kind that make a solid tug on the line and a day on the ice so much fun.
Perhaps Minnesota's most famous perch lake is Winnibigoshish, but other candidates for good perch fishing abound. Lake Bemidji has decent numbers of jumbo perch, and Mille Lacs seems to be coming on again after several winters when the jumbos seemed less prevalent.
A location not found on most perch anglers' radar screens is the Dakotas -- and we're not talking Devils Lake, though it certainly has some very nice perch. Instead, consider the Dakotas' smaller lakes. Some would call them ponds. They're teeming with big perch (panfish, too) and anglers might as well get after them. In a few years the wet spell that has fed these lakes will end. When that happens many will shrink to the point of being inhospitable to fish. Catch 'em now before that happens!
Perch are roamers, gypsies if you will. On any given day -- sometimes on the same day -- they're found on flats, edges, sand and/or rock bars, where they feed on small minnows and larvae. On most lakes the best spots are hit hard and the perch schools are quickly thinned. So do what all resourceful ice anglers must do -- hoist the auger from the truck, load the tote sled and start punching holes.
Strikemaster has a new three-blade auger that cuts through ice like a hot knife through butter. Last winter, company vice president Ray Peterson demonstrated a prototype on a perch outing on Winnibigoshish. This was in February, when the ice was about two-and-a-half feet thick. Peterson cut through the ice in about half the time as his neighbors using two-blade augers. On days when you must drill 30 or more holes to find fish a quick-cutting auger is greatly appreciated.
After locating a school of perch, go after the aggressive biters first with a 1/8-ounce or 1/16-ounce Northland rattle spoon. Tear-drop spoons are another good choice. Tip one of the trebles with a waxworm or small minnow head, or go plain if you trust your jigging technique. Try pounding the bottom with the spoon. The cloud of suspended silt often draws perch looking for tiny larvae hidden in the mud. On stained waters try a glow jig or spoon. Crappies aren't the only fish that respond to a light.
When the aggressive biters are caught and the bite slows you're faced with a decision: move on or stay put? Modern ice anglers have had the "Move! Move! Move!" mantra pounded so incessantly into their heads that they might be missing some nice fish. A school of perch often has some bigger fish that don't fall for aggressive jigging. But these fish can be tempted to bite with the plain hook and splitshot combo mentioned above. Use a subtle jigging action. Place the splitshot from 6 inches to 3 feet from the hook. As a general rule, fussier fish require more distance between hook and splitshot.
Sometimes a deadstick is the best technique. Most states allow winter anglers to fish two lines, so don't hesitate to set a deadstick in one hole while you jig in another.
Winter perch are most often found on a breakline in 17 to 30 feet. That's where most are caught each winter. But don't hesitate to look shallower. Perch will school in weedbeds in 8 to 10 feet, and noted perch meister Gary Roach (yes, he fishes for more than walleyes) says he's found them as shallow as 3 feet. Perch that shallow can be difficult to catch, mainly due to the overhead noise we create when lumbering about with all our gear. Roach recommends drilling a few holes and then going somewhere else for awhile, perhaps to eat a sandwich or have a cup of coffee. Let the area settle down. Return on foot -- the snowmobile or ATV is left a safe distance behind -- and try the holes.
Good electronics can greatly aid your search for jumbo perch. An Aqua-Vu will tell you if those marks on your Vexilar FL-8 are worth pursuing. If so, drill another hole, set up the Fish Trap and settle in for winter's great fish, the perch!
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