Perch through the ice are one of life's greatest pleasures. For many seasoned ice anglers, it's a back-to-basics approach to fishing — standard and simple rigs, large schools of fish, and delicious fillets for the dinner table. For the beginner, it means relatively easy fishing with the possibility of 50 or 100 fish days! By following these simple tactics and techniques, sticking to lakes that hold healthy populations of fish, and spending the time needed to find the fish, you'll be on your way to bucket loads of perch and broad smiles.
Where are They Hiding?
While ice fishing for perch involves basic fishing, it's finding the schools of fish that makes it a challenge.
One key tip to remember when searching for perch is to keep moving. Perch gang up in big schools during the winter and will spend the days cruising in search of food. If you can intercept one of these untouched pods, you can be sure of dynamite fishing, as long as you give them what they want and are prepared to move with them.
You'll find that your best bet to start, as soon as the ice is safe enough to venture on to, is the shallows. At the beginning of the hard-water season, the shallow water bite is on big time, and the fish will readily bite. Your lure will hardly make it down the hole, before another hungry perch grabs your offering with almost reckless abandonment. Action like this can be hot for days or even a week, depending on how hard the shallow fish get pounded. One thing to keep in mind is that ice fishing for perch is a popular sport, and the ice can become "crowded." If you can keep ahead of the next person, and find an untouched school, you will reap the rewards.
Undoubtedly the time will come when the shallows will be devoid of perch. Fish will now be found in deeper, offshore areas, yet can still be easy to find if you search for them. Begin by trying deeper water adjacent to shallow spawning areas. Another good bet is finding areas between islands or off of points. Perch will often be found throughout the entire water column, so it is often a good idea to experiment with depths. Unlike the walleye, which is usually found on the bottom during the winter, perch will often suspend throughout the water column. The key is to experiment and probe the depths, while making a mental note of how deep that first fish was caught.
A productive way to find out where the fish are, in relation to the lake, is to talk to hut operators or local tackle shops. They will be more than happy to give you the information, and this has often saved the day for myself. Another key is to look for the huts and the crowds of anglers. Hut operators are in the business to make money, so you know their huts and paying customers will be in the vicinity of the fish. Finding these areas can definitely pay off.
The first thing to do, once you arrive on the ice, is to start drilling holes. Drill a half dozen in a zigzag pattern and drop down the transducer of an ice sonar to see if fish are present. (If you don't have an ice sonar, you will have to fish each hole blindly in hopes of finding some action.)
Begin the day with a small spoon, (tipped with a miniature shiner, maggot or Powerbait micro), or a small tube jig. Work all areas of the water column, from a foot below the ice to inches off the bottom of the lake. What you're searching for with these faster-moving presentations are the active fish, which will show you the location of a school. If after five or 10 minutes you still haven't connected, then move on to the next hole to see what's down below. Once you've caught a few fish from a hole, it's time to slow down your presentation, and also set up a secondary line, which will be your tip-up.
The best placement for your tip-up is approximately 15 to 30 feet from your primary jigging hole. This will be set close enough to get to quickly, and will also be in the vicinity of the school you located. If the action starts to die down in the area that you're fishing, it's simply a matter of moving outwards till you connect with the migrating school.
A dozen winters ago this scenario took place and became one of my fondest fishing memories. I was fishing the famed Lake Simcoe, located in Southern Ontario, in early February with two good friends. The weather was glorious, and, in fact, enabled us to fish in just our t-shirts! After the first few holes were cut, we hit pay dirt. Jumbo after jumbo perch was flopping on the ice, and we really had our hands full. At times, all three of us had fish on at the same moment, not to mention our tip-ups being pulled down. But as soon as the action started it would die down. So off we moved outward to connect with the roaming school once more. It didn't take more than a few holes and we were knee-deep in fish again. At day's end our smiles told the tale — a bucket of tasty perch, sun-tanned faces and a whopper of a fish that evened the scales out at 1.5 pounds! Who says ice fishing isn't fun?
Rod and Reel
Ice sonars are must for ice anglers; otherwise, you'll have to fish blindly to find action.
For jigging purposes, any good quality ultra light or light-action rod will do the trick. These are usually between 24 and 28 inches long and must have a sensitive tip. (This will be necessary in order to work the lightweight lures to their utmost effectiveness and also to relay bites better.) A quality ice rod of this style can usually be found for less than $30. Match this with an ultra-light reel with a smooth drag system, and spool it up with 2 or 4 pound-test monofilament. Use 2 pound-test if you are using extremely small baits or if the fish are really finicky. If there is a healthy population of walleye in the lake, it may be best to use 4 pound-test line, just in case you hook one of these bonus predators.
Any of the standard tip-ups will do for perch fishing, as long as they are smooth and sensitive. Many people even use a simple willow-branch, with line attached to one end, out on the ice. Tip-ups are very inexpensive and can be made quite easily from a few pieces of wood. The most effective presentation to use with a tip-up is a spreader rig. This is a weight attached to your main line, with two or three single hooks spread out a few feet from bottom. Attach a lively 1 to 1.5 inch shiner or pinhead minnow through the back, just below the dorsal fin, and you're on your way.
There is a myriad of lures for perch fishing out on the market, but my best advice is to purchase a half dozen or so, and see which ones work best out on the water. Some of my favorite lures that have produced for me in the past are any of the spoons in the 1/32 ouce to 1/8 ounce range, such as the Forage Minnow. Micro tube jigs in bright or natural colors, in the above-mentioned sizes, can also be dynamite, as can the swimming Rapala jigs. Experiment with size, color and tipping options (shiners, maggots, meal or wax worms), and sooner or later you'll ring the dinner bell. The simplest presentation can be key, and often times I have produced dozens of fish with a small hook and shiner, slowly jigged up and down.
As I alluded to earlier, an ice fishing sonar is invaluable for those that spend time on the ice. These units will help you locate fish, ascertain what depths they are relating, and bottom line: put a ton more fish on the ice. For those that don't own one, I definitely recommend picking a system up.
As you can see, ice fishing for perch is a wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon. By following through with these tactics and techniques, you'll be on your way to becoming a successful perch fisherman. Here's to a happy ice season to you all!