The thing I like about yellow perch through the ice is they’re not difficult to catch once you find them, and they’re eminently catchable by a variety of methods. Jigging with plugs, spoons and jigs with or without bait, as well as using tip-ups with natural bait are all productive techniques.
This is never more evident than during this time of year (February and early March), as perch go heavy on the feed bag to sustain themselves during the coldest days of winter and to gear up for the spawning period that’s just a few weeks away.
Yellow perch are notorious for constantly being on the move, but they’ll always be near food. Find the food and you will find yellow perch. In general, channel edges, deep and shallow mud flats, points that gradually taper to deeper water, submerged weed beds in coves and rocky reefs in 15 to 25 feet of water are hotspots for various types of forage. To locate these areas, reference lake maps produced by most state fish and wildlife departments. These are typically available in print form and/or via download from the agency’s web site. They show water depths and, in some cases, various types of structure and habitat conditions. Many tackle shops and retail outlets may also have local lake contour maps.
Regardless of water depth, be it 10 or 30 feet, ice fishing for yellow perch generally starts at or near the bottom, especially this time of year. It is near or on the bottom where insect larva, crustaceans, minnows and other important prey species are found, and perch generally cruise and feed at the same level.
A popular search method is to drill a series of holes in a perpendicular line out from the shore, or in a wide circle offshore, with each hole spaced 20 or so yards apart. This works well when fishing tip-ups and live bait, and because your holes are already predrilled, moving is relatively quick and easily done when jigging. When fishing artificial lures, don’t hesitate to actually hit and stir up the bottom on occasion, especially when starting out. The disruption and cloud of mud or dirt on the bottom seems to suggest baitfish or other forage are active, and it’s a good way to draw perch. Typically, whether using tip-ups or jigging, I like to give my holes 30 minutes to start producing. If nothing happens within that timeframe, I move to another location and start all over again, keeping mind yellow perch are always on the move.
1. SPOONS AND BLADES
Straight blade baits and straight or slightly bent spoons are great for both attracting and catching yellow perch. The same is true of the “rattling” spoon models; the added noise not only helps attract perch but seems to stimulate them into biting. Most spoons and blade baits come in 1- to 2-inch sizes. Generally speaking, gold and dark colors attract best late and early in the day and under cloudy skies, while silver and bright colors work well on days with clear skies and plenty of sun.
Regardless of size, spoons and blade baits sink fast, are good replicas of multiple forage species, vibrate and move in the water well and produce lots of flash. Whether prospecting or trying to hook up, allow these offerings to hit the bottom, then bring them up several inches to a foot or two with the rod tip. A slight hesitation at the top before allowing it to sink will often draw a strike. The mistake many anglers make is working spoons and blades too aggressively, which causes the lures to tumble and twist in the line. Fish them just fast enough to feel the vibration.
2. SINKING PLUGS
Plugs like the Jigging Rap and Jigging Shad Rap from Rapala and Acme’s Hyper Glide Minnow are excellent all-around offerings for getting yellow perch to bite, but especially for prospecting. Sizes from 2 inches and smaller are popular. They’re available in a variety of finishes, and most perch fishermen use a wide selection in both bright and dull colors to match dominant minnow species, water clarity and light conditions. These offerings sink well, making them an excellent choice for deep-water areas. Because the line eye is centered, sinking plugs have lots of side-to-side and circular movement when jigged upward and imitate a wounded baitfish when sinking. Again, the key here is not to work them too fast—just enough to feel the action. Typically, a series of steady lifts or short, quicks jerks with brief pauses at the top and bottom ends will do the trick.
3. JIG HEADS
Small jig heads in 1/32- and 1/8-ounce sizes, like Acme’s Pro-Grade Tungsten Jigs, are productive once a school is on the feed. Some anglers fish them with plastic or feathered skirting, like marabou, for added attraction. Tungsten is denser than lead and sinks rather quickly, making these jig heads excellent on deep-water flats, the edges of drop-offs and in other areas where perch feed deep. These lures can be fished with fast twitches or slowly, so don’t hesitate to experiment with the action. Skirted or not they are excellent in combo with a grub, waxworm or other natural bait over muddy bottoms and submerged weed beds.
4. LIVE AND SOFT BAITS
Combining any of the lures above with a nightcrawler (whole or piece), minnow, mealworm, wax worm or grub as added incentive can be deadly, especially when the action is slow or starts to taper off. When using a lure/bait combo I like a slower, less aggressive jigging action that gives the bait time to work, though experimenting can often make or break a day.
5. TIP-UPS AND LIVE BAIT
Yellow perch can also be fished with tip ups with 1- to 2-inch live minnows; attach a sinker to the line to get the minnow down. Some anglers hook the minnow just below the dorsal fin while others prefer hooking near the tail. Whatever you choose, it’s important not to kill the minnow since its swimming action is what attracts perch. When starting out, most anglers stagger their lines at various depths. Once the action starts, other traps can be set at the ideal depth. I like to set up a string of tip-ups with live minnows while jigging a hole with a spoon, plug or jig. Doing so makes it possible to cover more area with more lines.
Basic tackle requirements for yellow perch.
Ultra-light jigging rods made of graphite or composite blends with medium or fast actions and enough backbone to handle the heavier lures and plugs are popular for winter perch fishing.
Most jigging reels are loaded with 60 to 80 feet of 2- to 6-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon line. Monofilament line specifically designed for ice fishing has soft, low-memory characteristics and are slightly buoyant in water. Fluorocarbon lines are tougher, more sensitive to bites, have less stretch and are nearly invisible in the water.
Tip-ups are commonly loaded with 8- to 10-pound-test braided line with a swivel or snap swivel attached to the end, followed by a 5- to 6-foot-long, 4- to 6-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. Add a sinker and #8 or #6 hook.
TOP EASTERN PERCH LAKES
Perch abound in the Northeast, but these waters are among the best.
- Maranacook Lake, ME: Yellow perch are found throughout the lake, but the best areas are found in the shallow, weedy 700-acre North Basin in Readfield. With a maximum depth of just 39 feet, many of the coves have submerged weed beds where tip-ups with live minnows work extremely well.
- Lake Winnipesaukee, NH: Yellow perch numbers aren’t what they once were in New Hampshire’s biggest lake but any of the shallow coves can still produce good catches. The Moultonborough Bay area can be particularly good with silver spoons rigged with bait.
- Lake Champlain, VT/NY: Although yellow perch are wintertime favorites along both shorelines, the Shelburne Bay and St. Albans Bay areas in Vermont and Cumberland Bay and Willsboro Bay in New York are perennial hotspots. Concentrate efforts near structure close to deep water with jigging grubs, waxworms, maggots and other small naturals on silver spoons. Tip-ups with live minnows also do well.
- Oneida Lake, NY: The best perch opportunities will be found on deep water flats in Big Bay in 30 to 40 feet of water. Medium-size silver, gold and multicolored spoons tipped with minnows and other bait do well. Tip-ups with live bait and sinkers to reach the bottom also catch their share of the lake’s fat yellow perch.
- Lake Erie, PA: Jigging small, skirted jigs tipped with grubs or maggots and gold or silver spoons tipped with minnows are usually productive in the Presque Isle Bay area. Most local anglers fish two lines set up differently.