In the center is Stanley Von Ruden, on the left is is son Kyle, and to the right is our friend and pescatorial correspondant in Wisconsin, Chris Beeksma. Travelling by air boat over iffy spots and open water, they obviously made their way to some spectacular fishing this week.
“We found big perch everywhere,” Beeksma said. “Everywhere we went, we found perch. And not very many little ones, either. I don’t think anybody knows the Mississippi backwaters area within 30 miles of LaCrosse better than they do. And neither of them are guides, so they just fish a lot and know where to go.”
So typical in river backwaters, the perch were found in 4- to 5-foot depths. The critical locational factor for panfish in backwaters during winter is absence of current, and though some 10-foot holes can be found in this maze of channels, peninsulas, islands, and basins—the second critical factor is forage. Just hanging around in the deepest holes won’t cut it, once the forage has been cropped down. By late winter, it’s typical to find perch, bluegills, even crappies out roaming around on the shallower flats in search of concentrations of invertegrates.
“The perch would roam past in big schools,” Beeksma said. “So we had to keep moving to find them. Kyle and Stanley always set up Automatic Ice Fishermen adjacent to our position, to intercept any fish roaming around within 75 feet of us in several directions. When an Automatic Fisherman would pop, we’d run over there and catch 5 or 10 before the perch moved on.”
Obviously, perch were grazing—which is so typical this time of year when minnow counts drop. When chasing minnows begins to consume too much energy to make it cost effective in terms of calories gained versus calories lost, perch start nosing around for mayfly nymphs, chironomids, caddis larvae, and other invertebrates. And they tend to find the best grazing along transitions between hard bottom and softer substrates.
The same dynamic holds true in lakes all over the North country. Typically, perch begin roaming around in big schools on those 12- to 20-foot flats between late February and early March every year. The bigger the flat, the more perch it will hold. Small spoons like the 1/16-ounce PK Lures PK Spoon, the Lindy Frostee Spoon, or the Northland Tackle Forage Minnow tend to be my first choices. I like to tip each tine of the small treble with a single maggot. You generally don’t have long to make hay before the school moves, so attracting and catching the most active perch with something that drops fast is key. Attraction can come in the form of lifting the ljure up 2 to 3 feet and shaking it, using rattles, or pounding the spoon on bottom. But don’t get carried away with the latter activity or the water becomes too cloudy for perch to find the lure.
“My best lure was probably a white TC Tackle Girdle Bug (TC Tackle: 406/683-5485),” Beeksma said. “I did well with a TC Tackle ball-head jig tipped with a Little Atom Atomic Wedgie. Stanley caught most of his fish with a Custom Jigs & Spins Demon tipped with a waxie.” When wax worms are working better than minnows, it’s a pretty safe bet they’re rooting around on bottom, as opposed to chasing minnows. And the Girdle Bug, with its small rubber legs and tail feathers is a pretty good imitation of a mayfly nymph.
Big river backwaters are dynamic environments that produce prodigious populations of panfish. But current can funnel into backwaters when sandbars move around near the main channel. Necks and narrows can have thin ice in places. Best to stay on well-travelled routes and fish near other anglers until you know the water really well. “I wouldn’t go out there alone, that’s for sure,” Beeksma said. Thus the air boat and the informed company of the Von Rudens. “But what a great fishery.”