Few among us haven't dreamed of drilling into an untapped honey-hole loaded with walleyes, pike, or other icy-good quarry. And although this may seem like a pipe-dream unless you're willing to travel to destinations well off the beaten path, such fisheries exist within a short cast of most everyone in the Ice Belt. The catch is, they're located in flowing water.
"Targeting ice fishing current is considered 'extreme ice fishing' by most anglers," says veteran guide Dan Palmer of Hayward, Wisconsin. "Rivers — even small waters few people look twice at — can be goldmines in the winter." Palmer warns that any outings over flowing water require extra precautions. "You have to respect the river," he says. "Wear a life jacket, bring ice picks, safety lines, and never fish alone."
Although he focuses on the waters around Hayward, he fishes from northern Illinois to Lake Wisconsin, the Wisconsin River, and beyond. While big rivers can provide fine fishing, he often targets more lightly fished small systems, which he describes as "rivers so small that most anglers would call them streams." One of his favorites is the Pecatonica, a tributary of the Rock River that winds through Wisconsin and Illinois for nearly 200 miles before dumping into the Rock, which feeds the Mississippi.
"The Pecatonica has great walleye fishing in the fall, which is when I often fish it," he says. "In winters cold enough for its 2-plus-mph flow to freeze over, it provides great ice fishing." Palmer knows the system well from his open-water forays, and says it's best to learn a river's intricacies in open water. "You save a lot of drilling," he says. Still, it's possible to locate prime lies once hardwater arrives.
Walleyes & Pike
"Seams between fast and slow current are key holding areas for walleyes," he says. "One of the best places I've found is on an inside bend, with a sharp break rising toward shore from a 30-foot hole. Timber is a plus. With an underwater camera, you can probe logjams and fish them just like the catfish anglers do in summer. Most walleyes come from depths of 10 to 14 feet, along the seam, while pike hold tighter to the bank, in 5 to 6 feet of water, in much slower current."
He relies on a two-pronged approach that includes snapjigging and running livebait on three-way rigs similar to those he uses when openwater guiding. "A bladebait such as the 1/4-ounce Golden Perch-pattern Northland Live Forage Fish-Fry Minnow Trap is deadly," he says. His snapjigging cadence includes touching bottom, then sharply snapping the bait upward a foot or so, stopping the freefall 6 inches from bottom, then slowly dropping it. "The final descent is so slow, it's perhaps more of a hover," he says. "I had the locals in a frenzy snapping Minnow Traps last winter. They'd never tried it before."
One of the keys to good snapping is keeping the presentation vertical, so slower current is best, he says. In faster water, a three-way rig shines. Palmer sets a 36-inch Frabill combo spooled with 10-pound Berkley FireLine mainline in a tip-up-style rod holder such as HT Enterprises' Ice Rigger. He also deploys well-seasoned Rod Tender Ice Riggers, which he says were forerunners of HT's lineup. In either case, the rigger cradles the rod, while the reel is kept in freespool, its line held by a clip connected to a grooved pin that holds the tip-up flag down until a walleye moves off with the bait.
The business end of the setup includes a sturdy three-way swivel, with a 5- to 6-foot leader of 5-pound Northland Bionic Ice line tipped with a nose- or tail-hooked shiner, large fathead, or rosy red on a green Gum-Drop Floater. A 1- to 3-ounce pencil sinker on a 3-inch dropper anchors the rig. "Walleyes hug bottom, so that's where the bait needs to be," says Palmer, adding, "with a three-way rig, keeping your line at a 45-degree angle is critical."
Many areas contain pike and walleyes. For pike, Palmer shifts shallower, into less robust current, and fishes a large shiner on a three-way rig or else jigs a #7 or #9 Jigging Rap tipped with a minnow head. "I like jigging because you draw fish in, and get to watch them on sonar as they slash at the Jigging Rap, miss it, then come back again," he says. "We've caught pike up to 45 inches this way on small rivers, in areas of Illinois and Wisconsin where anything over 30 is unusual."
Farther east, In-Fisherman contributor and Great Lakes system expert Joe Balog plucks flowing water perch from the St. Clair River. "Two current-related scenarios come into play here," he says. "Early in the season, migrating perch follow shiners into harbors and canal mouths. When we get a lot of early snow or rain, or freezes and thaws, as is typical in December, runoff creates current in these areas. The water often gets stained, but the fish stay in there because there's a feast of shiners and small panfish. The water here is deep for our area, around 8 to 12 feet."
He says the most important aspect of presentation is finding the perfect weight for the depth and current. "I typically use a wobbling spoon, or a small vertical jigging spoon," he says. "You need a bait that's heavy enough to stay below you and be visible on sonar, but light enough to let the current sweep it a little outside the ice hole on the fall. As it steadies back to center, perch nail it. But it can't be completely vertical."
Use slight jig strokes in a steady cadence. Spoons tipped with beads are popular. Think small wobblers like a Ken's Hook, or small jigging spoons like the Lindy Frostee, tipped with a small anise egg, Berkley PowerBait Power Egg, or a few maggots.
"The other flow-related pattern occurs in the channels of the St. Clair River," he says. "It occurs all winter, provided we have safe ice." Current-swept weedflats in 5 to 8 feet of the river's clear water, adjacent to depths of 20 feet or more, are key. "Schools of big perch cruise these flats," he says.
Balog sight-fishes from a portable shelter, with a tiny softbait such as a Little Atom Nuggies Tail on a gold lead or tungsten head. "The tail should be a neutral color, like purple, green, or motor oil, and the head must have a little flash," he says. "Your line should be thin and clear. I like 2-pound clear Sufix Ice Magic."
The key is finding a bait light enough to dance while ice fishing current, without being swept away. "I sometimes start with a flashy spoon to bring fish in, then drop the Nuggie," he explains. "The key is being quiet, feeding perch that little softbait in a realistic manner, and keeping the school beneath you. Perch come up high — right below the ice — as the jig flutters back in the current. Bringing fish up in the water column, in any clear-water situation, increases your odds of catching them."
Scenarios similar to Palmer's and Balog's occur each winter in rivers large and small across the Ice Belt. But temper your enthusiasm with a respect for the river. Ice thickness can vary from 20 inches to less than 2 within a few steps, and ice can disappear quickly in current, throughout the season. With the right dose of diligence, however, you can enjoy out-of-this-world action, just down the road from overcrowded, heavily fished waters.
1 Shoal Lake > Manitoba
This untapped gem lies about 40 miles northwest of Winnipeg in the Interlake Region. Shoal Lake has formed as rising water has joined East, West, and North Shoal lakes, similar to the Devils Lake situation. It's created a 'new-lake ' effect that's spurred production of shrimp and other invertebrates that boost perch growth. Contact: Guide Dan Kiazyk, 866/228-3933, cateyeoutfitter.com
2 Devils Lake > North Dakota
As this vast lake in east-central North Dakota continues to expand, so does its perch population. Guide Jason Mitchell reports the highest numbers he's seen in 20 years along with jumbos from the 2006 and 2007 year-classes. While ice fishing is most popular, it's a fine spring and summer option, too. Contact: Guide Jason Mitchell, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net
; Perch Patrol, 701/351-3474, perchpatrol.com
3 Mille Lacs > Minnesota
Big perch spread across this 112,000-acre lake that's endowed with fish-holding habitat from one end to the other. Late winter is prime time as perch fatten up by feeding on soft-bottom flats loaded with larval insects in 20 to 30 feet of water. Swiss-cheese these areas to find concentrations of big fish. You can do well with little company during the open-water season, too. After they spawn, fish shift from the edges of vegetation to basin flats. Contact: Guide Tony Roach, 763/226-6656, roachsguideservice.com
4 Lake Waubay > South Dakota
Excellent spawns have fueled Lake Waubay's perch population, in northeastern South Dakota. Average size can run 12 inches, offering the best bite in years. In addition to 1,600-acre Waubay, check Pias and Middle Lynn lakes. Contact: Guide Cory Ewing, 605/929-3894, waubaylakeguideservice.com
5 Mississippi River > Wisconsin
Perch grow big in the productive backwaters of the Mississippi River. Habitat improvement by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has increased aquatic plant coverage and perch have responded. Check areas on the Wisconsin side of Pool 9, near Genoa and DeSoto. Ice fishing is effective, and a great spring bite begins at ice-out. Contact: Guide John Bomkamp, 608/574-1580, johnbomkampfishing.com
6 Lake Gogebic > Michigan
Located in million-acre Ottawa National Forest, the largest lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a multispecies gem that yields big perch, along with walleyes, sunfish, and smallies. Perch are underfished and can top two pounds. Contact: Guide Barry 'Bear' Drews, 906/842-3361, ninepinesresort.com
; Lake Gogebic State Park, 906/842-3341, michigandnr.com/parksandtrails
7 Lake St. Clair > Michigan-Ontario
Expansive St. Clair offers vast numbers of 'eaters, ' but enough jumbos to keep you on your toes and hunting across its broad, shallow flats. Fishing peaks in late summer and fall, lasting into winter, with 50-fish limits not uncommon. Check weed-sand transitions and flats from 12 to 18 feet deep. Contact: Capt. Steve Jones, 586/463-3474, fishpredator.com
8 Lake Erie > Ohio to New York
With its outstanding bass and walleyes, Lake Erie is overlooked for panfish. But its expansive moderate-depth flats make ideal habitat for ringers that often run over a pound. Perch popularity peaks from Cleveland to Erie, Pennsylvania, but reports indicate a booming population east to Buffalo. In spring and fall, protected bays produce, but the bite for big fish transitions to deeper flats (25- to 40-foot range) in late spring. Contact: B.A.C. Bait and Tackle, 814/838-2850 (Pennsylvania); Capt. Frank Campbell, 716/284-8546, niagaracharter.com
(New York); Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934, erieoutfitters.com
; North Coast Charter Boat Association, northcoastcharter.com
9 Lake Simcoe > Ontario
While heavy fishing pressure has admittedly taken a toll on Lake Simcoe's production of jumbos, this big lake in south-central Ontario continues to be one of the best on the continent. Pressure peaks from January through March so good summer and fall options exist. Insiders note a growing conservation ethic, as anglers release ponderous female perch, keeping smaller but still worthy males, promising a bright future. Contact: Guide Greb Clatt, 416/580-2541, profishntanglingservices.com
10 Upper Chesapeake Bay > Maryland
Thanks to habitat management by the Maryland DNR, the lower Susquehanna and North East rivers are emerging as prime perch fisheries. From mid-February to mid-March, staging fish move shoreward. Locals employ drop-shot rigs with bull minnows (killifish) or grass shrimp. Contact: Herb's Tackle Shop, 410/287-5490.