First Ice Perch Fishing Primer

For many anglers, early ice is the best ice.
     As fall turns to winter here in southern Wisconsin my focus slowly shifts towards the upcoming ice fishing season.  I start to dream of large wandering expanses of frozen water and of the giant schools of panfish that exist beneath them.  When first ice arrives I watch as photos start showing up on social media sites.  Monster pike, slab size crappies, and huge walleyes start to fill the screens of my mobile devices.  However the real early ice fishing prize for myself and a select few anglers is the yellow perch.  In this post I will go over some of the basic information you'll need in order to track down and catch this little gem in our Midwest lakes.
Echotails and yellow perch just seem to belong together throughout the ice fishing season.
     Some of you maybe thinking, "Aren't perch more of a late ice species?"  The answer to that question is a resounding YES!  Perch schools are much easier to find and catch in deep water during stable weather patterns under 2 feet of ice.  However if you know where to look, you can find perch, specifically big perch during first ice.  
Dress in layers to stay comfortable on the ice.
     So when I say first ice, I don't mean unsafe ice.  I only venture out on the lakes around Madison when we have at a minimum 3 inches of ice.  You have to remember that the early ice period (when ice is still forming) can be some of the toughest conditions you can fish all year.  Not because of the bite, but because of the weather.  Temps change dramatically this time year.  The winds pick up and drop off unexpectedly, and if you're not careful you can unintentionally put yourself in some unsafe conditions.  So use common sense when heading out and keep these things in mind.

  • Dress in multiple layers.
  • Let somebody know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
  • Consider wearing an inflatable PFD.
  • Check ice ahead of you with a spud bar.
  • Stay away from the cloudy looking ice.
  • Keep a spare set of emergency dry clothes in your vehicle (Just in case).

     Now that we've covered the required "Safety Speech" let's get back to the perch.  The best way to find perch is to use the Lake within a Lake concept.  In a nutshell you want to find bays and backwaters that are the first to freeze because they are smaller, but that exhibit similar traits to the main lake.  A good example of this in Madison would be the Triangle on Lake Monona or the beach front on Lake Wingra.  When you look at these areas on lake maps or the Navionics app you'll see that they have good defined contour breaks and normally hold fish into late fall due to deep lush weed beds.  If you can identify areas like these on your home waters, waters that freeze early and have the correct structural elements, then you're sure to find schools of perch.  The question of course is, where?
Limit your catch, don't catch your limit.
     The short answer is on the drop offs.  Any drop off can hold perch, but not all drop offs are created equal.  You're looking for a contour drop that allows perch to crush the bait fish.  It's not how deep the drop off is, although most seem to occur in the 4-16 foot range.  More importantly you want a drop off that relates to structure.  Structure can be a weed line, sunken timber, even a gravel to sand transition.  If you can locate drop offs of a foot or more that butt up against structure you can be certain that schools of perch are in the area.
     To catch the perch in these schools I like to use tight lining rod and reel setups.   Tight lining uses simple 1:1 ratio reels that allow you to quickly and efficiently fish shallow water.  I normally spool up with 6 pound fluorocarbon line and attach my lures with a small clip and barrel swivel.  The clip lets me change lures in an instant and the barrel swivel keeps line twist to a minimum.  Lure selection is largely dependent on the body of water, but one thing that I love about early ice is that the forage species are at there biggest so big lures perform wonderfully.  I like to use spoons tipped with minnows or the ever popular Echotail blade bait.  The Echotail is the only blade bait that incorporates a barb to hold soft plastic tails.  This ability to change out the tail means I can use any soft plastic on the market.  So I can add scent by using Gulp, flash by using Uncle Josh, heck I can even use live minnows on them when the bite is extremely tough.  Another great benefit is that the walleye love them, so you can always count on a few bonus fish while out perching.  They are probably the most versatile lure you can have in your ice fishing tackle box.  You can learn more about the Echotail from Vibrations Tackle and check out the 2015 ice patterns here.
First ice yellow perch on Lake Monona.
     For early ice keep the lures moving.  Aggressive jigging and lots of pull and pause seem to really get the bite this time of year.  Subtle movements can be saved for later in the season.  Just remember that a lot of the bites are going to come on the fall.  That is, you will get bit while the lure is dropping in the water column.  One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when jigging through the ice is just letting the rod drop haphazardly.  You want to make sure that you stay in contact with the lure at all times.  This is easily accomplished by following the line down with the rod tip at the end of your jigging stroke.  If your line goes slack when jigging you're doing it wrong.  More fish are lost on the drop then at any other time when jigging, so keep the lure moving, just don't lose contact with the lure.  I can't stress this enough, No Limp Lines!
     Hopefully these tips will help you find some first ice perch this season.  Just please remember to use your head and stay safe.  The early ice is easily the most dangerous ice.  If you are not sure if the ice is safe then error on the side of caution and wait a few more days before venturing out.  The fish will still be there when you come back and your family will love the fact that you're still around.  Now go get those auger blades sharpened and some fresh line on your ice combos, because the perch are biting.
A couple of Lake Mendota yellow perch fillets for dinner.
     Tight Lines.



Disclaimer- Shoreboundhero.com is in a professional relationship with Vibrations Tackle.  I serve on the prostaff and help with product testing, promotion, and occasionally sales.  Although I could potentially benefit from this relationship I will never recommend a product I don't believe in or that I wouldn't feel could be of value to my readers.

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