The Ice Fishing Perch Search
January 23, 2014
The screen lights up. Missiles are launched and heading your way. Space Invaders? In that game, missiles rain from the heavens. Survival demands getting out of the way or destroying missiles in flight.
Perch launch from below. "It's like Space Invaders on your sonar unit," says guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Missiles are launched. That's what you want to see — perch rising to bite a bait. That's when you need a spoon."
But which spoon? And when do you gear down to a more subtle approach?
Brosdahl hunts for perch with a spoon. It gets down fast, creates flash, and calls fish from a distance. "Add a little noise and you can move perch a long way," Brosdahl says. "I start with a 1/8-ounce Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon with a small minnow on the treble. I like to use a camera when hunting and covering water fast. Some days, you don't see those rising arcs — no missiles. That's my cue to switch to a subtle presentation, like the Northland Bro's Bloodworm. I slow down and shake the rod tip. A bite stops the rod tip from vibrating. I do well with bright colors on some lakes, but red is my favorite for perch.
"You often don't need bait, but you can tip a Bro's Bloodworm with maggots or a waxie just in case," he adds. "When things get tough I tie a tungsten Northland Mini Fire-Ball 2 feet below the spoon on a 3- to 4-pound dropper. The Fire-Ball falls at the same rate as the spoon so it doesn't tangle, so you can use a longer dropper. I hang one maggot or waxie on the smallest Fire-Ball. Perch typically rise to a spoon but grab the offering below. When perch approach the spoon first, I use a 6-inch dropper. But when they get lockjaw, I go to a 2-foot dropper. And with a dropper, you have the opportunity to hook a rogue walleye on the spoon. When perch are spooky in clear water, a 2-foot dropper excels."
Jason Mitchell, of Jason Mitchell Outdoors, starts with a big spoon. "Half the time, it's a matter of finding them," he says. "A spoon's flash can attract perch from a long distance. Larger spoons create more flash. In clear water, a 1/4-ounce spoon can draw perch from 30 to 50 feet. When I'm in search mode, I use a slab spoon like the Northland Macho Minnow because it gets down fast. If the bite gets tougher, I scale back."
Changing The Shape Of A School
"If perch are hesitant, I switch to lighter lures," Mitchell says. "But you have to find them. Rip a spoon aggressively and the first active perch you find shoot up from the bottom. Then you know they're around. If they don't accelerate on the rise, that tells me they're going to require something more subtle. Even without a camera, you can read acceleration by the flutter of the fish's signal on the flasher. When a fish moves fast, it changes body posture and the signal flutters more."
When perch carpet the bottom but seem finicky, he tries to change the shape of the school. "When a school of perch is positioned horizontally, you need to change it to a vertical grouping," he says. "That's when you get more aggressive behavior.
"On a crazy good bite, you can reef on perch with a single-hook spoon. Visualize a perch shooting upward and engulfing the spoon. When you watch on camera you see that they push the spoon forward and take it with two bites. That's when the single-hook shines because no matter how they take it into their mouths, the hook finds purchase.
"When perch are a little less aggressive, a treble hook shines. But aggressiveness is a matter of degrees. If they won't commit to spoons, I switch to a Northland Hexi Fly or a bare-bones, tail-hooked minnow."
Great Lakes expert Joe Balog breaks spoons down into two groups: Jigging spoons and hardbeads. "In southern Michigan and northern Ohio, we use traditional small jigging spoons like the Swedish Pimple and Lindy Frostee or what we call 'hardbeads' or 'beaded spoons,'" he says. "Examples include the Jack Spoon and Ken's Hook. They're more of a flutter-style spoon with a bead on the hook in place of bait. We use them to excite a school of perch, as they resemble a school of shiners.
"I use a beaded spoon, fished aggressively, any time perch are less than 12 feet deep and schooled up. The shallower and clearer the water, the better. I use a jigging spoon in deep water, when the water is dark, or when they're less aggressive (which is rare on clear, shallow Lake St. Clair near my home). In that case, I fish it slower, and often with bait. A small jigging spoon is a finesse presentation, but I favor heavy ones that gets down quickly and hold your line taut."
Balog says he learned about the effectiveness of beaded spoons from a group of friends who fish in tight groups and move often. "They all use hard beaded spoons 100 percent of the time," he says. "The patriarch of the group has fished here for over 50 years. All his sons and their buddies fish right on top of each other. They get to a spot, drill 6 to 10 holes, fish for 10 minutes and move. They fish close to each other since they've found that 4 or 5 baits flashing in the water draw fish from greater distances than a single lure. They're effective as the multiple lures keep the school active and biting."
No matter where we look, the search for perch starts with a spoon. Ice fishing's most traveled ice angler Dave Genz agrees. "I use Clam's new Blade Spoon to start hunting for perch," he says. "I want something flashy that lures them in to investigate. And spoons create a larger puff on the bottom when you drop them than jigs. Perch sometimes hold on deep flats so you're fishing in 40 to 50 feet. That requires a heavy spoon.
"Sometimes the spoon is the attractor but you need a smaller bait to get them to bite," he says. "The best bites are in low-light periods, but you may need bait during midday. Insect larvae emerge from the bottom and you need to match that size. Sometimes you need a small jig, like the new Clam Epoxy Drop or Ant Drop. And sometimes you need a bare hook and a single maggot — though a jig allows you to feel the strike below the spoon much better. For jigs, I'm more concerned about hook size than weight. You need a #10 hook or larger most of the time, due to the size of their jaw."
The Need For Speed
Like Mitchell, Brosdahl wants to change the geometry when perch schools flatten out. "If they're sitting a foot or so off bottom, try to make them rise," he says. "That activates the school and you can catch a mess from one spot. The flash of a hooked fish overhead sometimes excites the fish. So sometimes you don't want to reel in fish as fast as you can, but let them struggle a bit high in the water column."
When targeting schools of perch, it's important to get the lure back down. "If your line gets tangled, have other rods handy so you can always get a bait back down quickly," Brosdahl says. "That's what keeps the school on the spot. And the school begins to take on that Christmas-tree look. Otherwise, the perch bite comes in brief windows. Be fast and if they're hitting hard, stick with a spoon. If they're bumping it or missing it, switch to a Bloodworm or a long dropper."
When perch stop biting, Balog takes a different approach. "I almost never sit and work an area hard," he says. "Most of my fishing is run-and-gun. But that doesn't mean run to the next county. It can be done in a small area. Often, the first fish out of a hole — or maybe the second or third — is a jumbo. Once that fish is caught, the next 20 tend to be dinks. So I bounce around in a small area and catch a couple per hole.
"We drill at least 15 holes and fish them all for just 30 seconds to a couple minutes each. It's effective. When I move and immediately catch a few good fish, and the bite dies, it clues me to use a run-and-gun approach. If I fish slowly and catch a big fish every few minutes, I may stay in one spot, though it's usually 3 to 4 holes in a small area. I seldom fish a hole for long.
"I use bait less than five percent of the time," he says. "On Lake St. Clair, where there are huge numbers of small perch and competition is strong, I bounce around all day exciting the little guys, which encourages the big fish to bite. Creating an aggressive bite requires aggressive jigging. Bait slows you down. That's why I like beaded spoons so much."
The screen lights up. Missiles are launched. Could be a hit. How you respond to these signals from perch often determines how successful you are.