November 11, 2014
By Joe Balog
In today's age of new-wave ice fishing tactics, sometimes going old school is the best way to fill a bucket. This is true on the Great Lakes fisheries of southeastern Michigan—St. Clair and Saginaw Bay—where a popular technique has been used for more then 50 years, without changing. It remains one of the finest ways to catch yellow perch.
This type of spoon jigging is called "fishing hard beads," because the bent spoon is tipped with a small plastic bead for the fish to focus on when they attack—no bait. The spoon has a tremendous amount of action when it's jigged aggressively, which is the first step—call fish in.
These shallow-water perch factories produce huge numbers of small fish, and half a dozen dinks often need to be iced to cull one keeper. That's possible because the heavy spoon drives perch into frenzied feeding, which often results in a fish being iced every few seconds. Anglers quickly catch a fish and drop down to catch another and another. Old-timers hand-over-handed fish onto the ice, a method commonly referred to as "windmilling perch."
That's still the idea. As the school ignites and gains in size and aggression, anglers fish higher and higher in the water column, drawing the fish right up under the ice. This makes it easier to catch the fish, reduces down time, and excites the school even more, as they believe shiners are heading topside, as they do in the wild, to be pinned beneath the frozen surface. At times, however, the jumbos hold near the bottom, looking for scraps.
The origination of the technique seems to date to the 1940s in the Saginaw Bay area, where locals created jigging rods out of red-willow branches and crafted their own lures out of soldered spinner blades. Today's top lures include the popular Ken's Spoon, Gusters, and others. Top colors are chrome with a red bead or a glow bead.
Techno-modern enters the scene, though, as it's a big advantage to be able to see fish in relation to your lure when fishing water deeper than about 3 feet. It's all about playing keep-away with the larger school as you pluck the high-riders.
Jigging technique varies from day to day, but usually it's a steady jigging motion—snap-fall, snap-fall—that makes the spoon dart and wobble back. As the season progresses toward last ice, jigging strokes can be even more frantic.
Does the technique have application elsewhere? Indeed, the spoons have long enjoyed pockets of popularity across the Ice Belt—not just for perch but for whitefish and bass and pike. Aggressive jigging with a flashy, high-vibration spoon is always potentially in high fashion for aggressive predatory fish.
3 Devils Lake, North Dakota
This ever expanding perch mecca is again on the upswing for trophy-size perch. North Dakota Fish and Game reports that the lake's perch population is at the highest level since 2003. With strong year-classes from both 2006 and 2007, perch in the 10- to 14-inch range will make up a large percentage of the catch this year. Contact: Guide Jason Mitchell, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net; The Perch Patrol, 701/351-3474, perchpatrol.com
9 Lake Michigan, Indiana
Big water means plenty of opportunities to intercept roving schools of jumbo perch that can number in the thousands. High winds in spring have reduced angling pressure during the last two spawning cycles, and 2013 should be a banner year for fish in the 12- to 15-inch range. The prespawn bite starts in deep water over clay bottom during early spring, with fish moving to shallower rock and weededges in summer and fall. Contact: Capt. Ralph Steiger, 219/688-3593, captainsteiger.com
7 Finger Lakes, New York
Perch thrive in these 11 glacier-formed, deep, clear waters. Multiple lakes in close proximity allow for lake-hopping for beautifully colored perch. Seneca Lake draws much of the attention, but perch over 12 inches are in all of the lakes. Contact: Capt. John Gaulke, 607/319-0450, fingerlakesanglingzone.com
4 Glacial Lakes, South Dakota
With more than 50 lakes near the town of Webster, each year sees different lakes peaking for perch in the 9- to 13-inch range. Fertile waters from recent flooding help to ensure consistent good year-classes of perch. Bonus fish include a nice mix of crappies, bluegills, walleyes, and pike. Contact: Guide Cory Ewing, 605/929-3894, waubaylakeguideservice.com
1 Interlake, Manitoba
Situated between the mammoth waters of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, local fisheries range from natural valley lakes of 30 square miles, to shallow inland lakes of modest size. Fantastic perch fishing runs from early December through ice-out. Plenty of perch hit the 12-inch mark in these fertile lakes, and there is a good shot at 14- to 15-inchers. Contact: Dino Branfield, 204/362-2945, nelsonvilleoutfitters.com
10 Lake Erie, Ontario
Along with its 'walleye factory ' moniker, Lake Erie produces more perch than any other lake in North America. A hot bite exists in fall along Erie's north shore. Once fish are located, 50-fish daily bags are the norm. Manmade structures, including midlake gas wells and underground pipelines, concentrate massive schools, making the fishing reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Contact: Capt. Frank DiMarcantonio, 905/933-4834, niagarasportfishing.ca
8 Lake Gogebic, Michigan
Despite being the largest inland lake in the Upper Peninsula and producing more state angler award fish than any other fishery in the area, this trophy perch fishery somehow remains under the national radar. While not a numbers fishery, perch surpassing 2 pounds are caught each year, both during the open-water and hard-water seasons. Contact: Barry Drews, 906/842-3361, ninepinesresort.com
; Gogebic Lodge, 906/842-3321, gogebiclodge.com
5 Lake Simcoe, Ontario
Abundant freshwater shrimp and other small invertebrates allow this heavily fished lake in southern Ontario to continually produce good numbers and sizes of perch. While ice fishing generates the most angling pressure, some of the biggest fish are taken shortly after ice-out in shallow bays around Beaverton. Schools of big perch roam deeper water throughout summer. Contact: Guide Greg Klatt, 416/580-2541, profishntanglingservices.com
6 Lake St. Clair, Michigan
Lake St. Clair provides incredible summer and fall fishing for numbers of 8- to 12-inch perch. Target them just outside thick vegetation in 6 to 18 feet of water. By fishing shallower water, deep-water mortality among sorted fish isn't an issue. One hundred- to 200-fish days are common. Contact: Capt. Steve Jones, 586/463-3474, fishpredator.com
2 Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
A big-water favorite in central Minnesota, this year-round fishery puts out jumbos averaging 12 inches, if you know where to hunt them, and fish in the 15-inch range aren't out of the question. For those willing to put in the work to locate a mess of jumbos, the rewards can be huge. Contact: Guide Tony Roach, 763/226-6656, roachsguideservice.com