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."
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