I approach ice fishing perch through the ice the opposite of shopping for groceries. I never shop for groceries on an empty stomach. And I never fish for perch on a full one. He who has a chicken in the pot, I say, is a poorer man on those fields where today a dozen perch must meet their maker.
In that regard, I have often said that I fish best when the object of the day is evermore on my mind. Focus and simplify. So it’s just a tidbit and coffee for breakfast, then hit the ice, fasting for the day, cleansing the gastronomic system (and the mind) in preparation for an evening meal, the focus being perch fillets, make them deep-fried. Condemned, this would be my final meal, fish that-day fresh, simply prepared, freshwater fish as good as they come.
I take seriously this perch fishing and have, all modesty aside, honed skills in this regard over a lifetime. “Have rod and reel, fillets to follow,” reads one of my bumper stickers. “Honk if you love perch,”reads the other. And should you pass and honk as I head to those perching fields, you will see me with eyes focused in a steely glare, an intense wrinkle on my brow. No tournament angler this one, no man with fame and money on the mind, but rather a simple soul on a primeval mission and no mercy to spare.
In the back of the truck, resting there in an old bucket well polished by my butt, is a tiny graphite rod called a Sweet Pea, 16 inches long with a fast action and a fine cork handle, plus a smooth little Slater reel spooled with one- or two-pound test. This one’s for sight fishing in the shallows. Even during late season, some perch roam over sand or rock bars. Sometimes they’re along inside weededges.
Shallow fish often are finicky and must be tempted with a tiny leadhead jig or teardrop with either a single maggot, single waxworm, or a maggot pack job. Occasionally, when searching shallow, I run into a horde of aggressive fish. Usually, though, this is onezie-twozie territory, a fish here and one there, move, move, move, and finesse each one into biting. I still easily catch half a bucket most days.
This, be warned, is also where the “buffs” roam. You’ll be lying there on the ice with a coat over your head so you can see below, dabbling away with the rod and jig, trying to bring a fish in, and suddenly he’ll be there—a fish so big he looks like a water buffalo. Be cool. Be cool. Don’t jump up, wave your arms hysterically and shout, “Great goodness almighty, it’s a monster, it’s a monster!” That is, don’t choke, which is to say, get a bad case of buff fever.
The most aggressive perch usually roam high, say within a few feet of bottom. These guys often eat anything you drop and respond to any way you dance it. Scattered bottom runners are more difficult. Big dances, that is quick lift-falls of a foot or more, attract fish—bring them in. It’s like using a mallard highball out there on the old duck marsh. Big and bold and magnum loud. Call them from a distance to have a closer look at your setup.
Once fish are in close, you dainty-dance, or as top ice-angler Dave Genz calls it, pound. With your hand on your rod, which is on your knee or perhaps just above your head if you’re in a portable shanty, or with your hand on your rod, which is on the ice if you’re lying on the ice with a coat over your head, jiggle the rod so the jig dances—quivers—in place.
Soon as the fish approaches within about 6 inches, stop. Let the fish think about this for a moment. “Food?” he surely wonders. Give another little jiggle-jiggle-jiggle and stop again. There, the fish should immediately approach to 1/2 inch. This is take time—within moments of stopping he should pause and then (Lupe!) inhale the bait. Obviously, you’re watching the fish closely. If there’s any hesitation at 1/2 inch, any more than a momentary pause, give a teeny little dance, just enough to barely wiggle the grub on the bait.
Again, the fish should respond immediately. No? Despair not. Instead, slowly raise the bait two inches, dancing lightly as you go. Stop. There, that should trigger him. No? Despair some. But raise another 4 inches and try again. Usually, though, by this time your options are up and the fish isn’t going to take. Back to big dancing to call in another fish.
One more absolutely critical tactic must be added to your basic presentation repertoire. Perch eat a ton of stuff off the bottom. Some days, most perch respond to bottom dancing. Other days, only one in two or three respond. Almost always, though, bottom dancing offers the potential to trigger more fish, whether you’re fishing deep or shallow.
In the shallows, add the bottom dance to your tactics in one of two ways. One approach is to begin by big dancing off the bottom. Drop the jig to the bottom and hop it up a foot or so about five times in a row, then stop and lift the jig about 3 inches off the bottom and hold. Call a fish in like this and you can proceed as before to get him to take—that is, light dance close and maybe raise the bait slightly if the fish doesn’t respond immediately.
Or, instead of raising the bait, drop it to the bottom and light dance. That’s it. Make it puff up sand and silt. Make it look like a wounded something. Or make it look like a grub or nymph trying to burrow away. Sometimes you have to stop this light dancing in order to get the fish to take. Other times, you have to keep on dainty dancing.
Often it works to add the bottom dance to the original presentation scenario. So your bait’s about 6 inches above bottom and you call in a fish. If he starts to turn away once you call him into 6 inches, or if he starts to lose interest once he’s at 1/2 inch, drop to the bottom and do some down-and-dirty dancing. Bottom dancing is particularly effective on sand and gravel bottoms, less so on rock, and generally unworkable on a mat of lay-down weeds.
Heading into deeper water, you need a longer rod, something like a 28-inch Thorne Brothers Sweet Heart, a fast-action stick with a reel like the Silstar TF Tiny 20 taped to the cork handle. For deep water, I run 4-pound line so I can do a little reefing to set the hook in water 50 to 60 feet deep.
About this deep-water thing and how to find perch there. As we’ve said so often before, perch prefer ranging on flats and tend not to hold on drop-offs. Once perch slide off shallow flats, they usually drop all the way to the base of the drop-off in the lake basin.
Basin areas, however, aren’t necessarily the deepest water in the lake, but they are the beginning of the deepest water in that section of the lake. Ice Perch slide down the drop-off, hit the base of the drop-off, and range in this general area at the base of the drop-off, particularly in the area where the transition from harder to softer bottom begins. This transition usually occurs within 50 yards of the base of the drop-off, so I target about a 100-yard zone beginning at the base of the drop-off into the basin.
Note that basins often begin at different depths in different portions of the same lake. Say a major shallow bay (big enough to be a small lake) is connected to the main lake. Say the shallow flats around the bay run 10 to 12 feet deep, then drop into 25 feet, at which point softer bottom begins in the 25- to 28-foot range. Say the deepest water in the bay runs 34 feet. The basin in this bay begins at 25 feet.
In the main lake, by comparison, flats run 12 to 15 feet deep, then in one main-lake section drop off into 25 to 30 feet, at which point mid-depth flats offering a little soft bottom begin—followed by another drop-off into 45 feet of water, at which point soft bottom begins in the 45- to 50-foot range. Say depth in this main-lake section eventually slides to 90 feet. Some perch roam those mid-depth flats, but the majority of the fish are at the beginning of the basin in 45 feet of water. In still other main-lake areas, the basin may begin in 35 feet of water. And so on.
MORE ABOUT BASINS
The key to finding the beginning of basin areas is recognizing where harder gives way to softer bottom. The softer bottom, by the way, usually is clay or marl covered with silt. Super-soft muck doesn’t attract perch for long. The beginning of the basin is a foraging area where I’ve found perch in lake after lake (and reservoirs) that I’ve fished from Montana to Manitoba to Iowa to New York.
But where along the basin edge isn’t always so easy. Points, for example, don’t particularly impress perch, who don’t seek them as walleyes might. Perch just roam, often in spread-out groups that may cover several hundred yards and include hundreds or even thousands of fish.
These fish, though, aren’t nearly so picky as shallow fish, so it’s really not so difficult to find them if you search systematically. I mean, these perch usually will eat your shorts when you get over them. So get at least two buddies, find the basin edge, spread out perpendicular to it—that’s three abreast—and start popping holes. Drop a bait down, do some big dancing, watch your electronics for signs of fish, give a hole three minutes, and move down the edge.
Of course, these fish will drift from day to day. It’s not unusual for groups to move 200 yards farther down along a basin edge by the next day. Perch don’t move much at night, so where you leave them in the evening, expect to find them the next morning.
But perch may also drift well away from the basin edge, roaming in scattered groups within basin areas. These fish can become difficult to find, particularly when they drop deeper than 60 feet. This often happens, though, and it’s usually the reason perching sometimes goes totally sour during late season.
When this happens, I look for hard-bottom slashes in basin zones, places where a marl or clay and gravel (or sand) lip rests in deep water. In natural lakes, these are patch areas caused by glacial deposits. In reservoirs, they’re worn humps or mounds that once were farmed hillsides or riverbank mounds.
Usually, these areas are slightly shallower than the surrounding softer area. In one lake I fish, a portion of basin zone runs about 70 feet deep for a mile in every direction, except for three gradual rises to about 64 feet. The largest of the 64-foot rises is about a football field long and 30 yards wide. The perch often drift here, always scattered. I usually can scratch a dozen there, although it may take several hours. Tough fishing.
PRESENTATION DOWN DEEP
Bigger and bolder is better to attract and then trigger perch in deep water. It’s darker way down there, so the fish can’t discriminate detail quite so well, and they aren’t nearly so harassed and therefore made wary by anglers. The shallow fish, you might say, are survivors that succumb only by slight of angler hand. The deep fish are hard to find, then relatively easy to catch with a handful of proven lures.
Flash lures like the 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Acme Kastmaster, the 1/5- or 1/4-ounce Bay De Noc Swedish Pimple, the 1/6-ounce Bay De Noc Do-Jigger, or a swimming lure like the #3 or #5 Jigging Rapala are top choices when perch are aggressive. Tip the treble hook with maggots, a minnow head, or a perch eye. (To dispatch a perch quickly before lifting an eye, hold the fish by the snout and lift his head to quickly break his neck.) Then do big dances followed by a pause, perhaps interspersed with a jiggle-jiggle, as the lure hangs about 4 inches above the bottom.
Concentrate. Bites are subtle thumps. On the pause, position your rod tip no more than an inch above the ice so you have room to sweep and remove line stretch on the hookset. Have your reel handle in an up position, in order to make a quick first crank after the set.
Watch electronics for indications of how high perch are holding above the bottom. Aggressive fish may ride high—two feet or more above the bottom. Deep water also is potential bottom-dance territory, though. Drop the lure to the bottom so it’s lying flat, then lift just until your line comes tight. Now lift again ever so slightly so the body but not the treble hook of the flash lure lifts off bottom. With practice, you can feel perch take, with your lure in this position.
When perch get picky down deep, which often happens when you’ve worked a pod of fish for two or three days in a row, switch to the oft-written-about “search lure” or a Custom Jigs and Spins’ Slip Dropper rig. Build a search lure from a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Kastmaster. The Kastmaster works so well because it falls so accurately, minimizing tangles.
Remove the treble hook and replace it with 21⁄4 to 21⁄2 inches of 4-pound-test line on which a 1/64-ounce—totally plain—jighead hangs. Not much more line or the rig tangles. Not much less line or bite ratio drops. Pack the jighead with 3 or 4 maggots. Again, lift-fall then hold several inches above the bottom to attract and trigger fish, or dance the jig and maggots on the bottom.
A final option for deep-ranging perch is coat-hanger rigging. (The only commercial rig I know of is marketed by H.T. Enterprises, 414/533-5080.) The hanger serves as a weight to get the rigging deep fast. A 6-inch hanger (1/4-ounce) is recommended in 25 feet of water, an 8-inch hanger (3/8 ounce) in 25 to 50 feet of water, and a 10-inch hanger (1/2 ounce) in water deeper than 50 feet.
Fishing with two rods can be an effective tactic. For sight fishing in the shallows, however, it takes all your concentration to run one rod right. Too, anytime you’re moving along quickly searching for perch, a second rod just gets in the way. A second rod also becomes too time consuming in water deeper than about 40 feet.
Once you’re on a pod of scattered fish in about 25 to 40 feet of water, though, a second rod may increase your catch substantially. I add a second rod to my attack in one of two ways. It isn’t difficult to jig with two rods. Just cut an extra hole about four feet away from the first. Use a bit heavier jig on one rod, so the bait has no trouble falling by itself when you open the bail. Get a rhythm going, either jigging both rods at the same time or jigging one rod and then holding it stationary as you jig the second.
I generally prefer a more relaxed approach, however, adding a deadstick as my second rod. A deadstick presents a lively minnow hooked so it struggles against the weight of a light leadhead jig or struggles on a plain hook just below a Slip Dropper. In shallower basins, say in the 20- to 30-foot range, dropping a maggot-packed 1/64-ounce jig also works. As always, if you’re running a minnow, it should be hooked on a single hook running parallel to (not vertical to) the dorsal fin. The bend in the hook should be toward the minnow’s head.
This stationary rod works for you as you jig with another rod. Ideally, the rod is positioned in one of the rod holders on the market that clip to a 5-gallon bucket. Deadsticks need a limber tip and a slower overall action than jigging rods. A limber tip encourages a minnow (positioned say 4 inches above bottom) to swim against the weight of the jig and the action of the limber rod tip. Wind also tends to work for you by moving the rod tip, further encouraging the minnow to swim.