Most winter anglers are creatures of habit. Each winter, they show up on the same lakes at the same times and target the same species. And, they usually catch the same sorry sum of fish. If you identify all too well with this scenario, it’s time for a change. Heck, even if you walk tall in the winter and regularly bag big, it’s still fun trying something new.
So, forget about those visions of lunker lake trout, giant walleye and massive pike. Instead, for a fun-filled change of pace this winter—not to mention out-of-this-world gourmet dining—think yellow perch and whitefish.
You can find perch and whitefish in countless waterways, from one end of the country to the other. They’re usually the most abundant fish, and they bite heartily throughout the winter months. And daily creel limits, if they even exist, are often generous to a fault.
Perch and whitefish are so overlooked, in fact, that non-stop, big-fish action is rarely difficult to find. Indeed, catching scads of bass-sized perch and dozens of six-pound whitefish is ridiculously easy in many waters-provided, of course, you know what you’re doing.
Part of the allure of pursuing perch in the winter is the cooperative nature of the yellow-and-black rascals. They’re social creatures that seem to enjoy each other’s company, so when you catch one, you can be certain there are plenty more in the immediate area—sometimes as many as 50 fish or more.
The fact that perch travel in numbers contributes to another winter windfall. Curious to a fault, they’re quick to investigate almost anything that looks shiny, colourful or edible, then compete with one another to see which one can bite it first or eat it the fastest.
Where to find perch
While it’s bad etiquette most of the time to drill holes too close to an angler who’s enjoying wild action, it’s a wise strategy when the fish are perch. Two anglers can even fish one hot hole together, alternating between hooking and landing perch, so as to keep the school excited. When you see the results, you won’t believe your eyes.
Unlike walleye, perch tend not to play hide-and-seek. Instead of hugging bottom and forcing you to fine-tune your sonar-reading skills, they’ll usually hover at least a foot or more above the bed of the lake within easy sight of prying eyes. Where exactly you find them, however, depends on the type of lake.
The bottom of bowl-shaped perch palaces such as Ontario’s Lake Erie and Manitoba’s Dauphin Lake are typical of the thousands of unstructured perch waters scattered across the country. They’re particularly prevalent in the lower half of the Prairies and the southern agricultural zones of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. In lakes such as these, where submerged points, rock reefs and boulder-strewn humps are as scarce as Siberian supermarkets, the perch are drawn to the deeper basins in the winter, especially if there’s sand grass growing on the bottom, or remnant green vegetation.
Perch in these types of waters are typically mobile, so it pays for you to also stay on the move. Keep scouting, whether on foot or machine, drilling exploratory holes and searching with your sonar for visible fish activity before you actually decide to set up camp and fish seriously.
In the thousands of multi-structured perch lakes that dot the Canadian Shield, on the other hand, the ideal places to look for fish are usually in and around hard-bottomed features such as points, bars, reefs and humps-anything that’s different from the surrounding area. The best structures usually lie adjacent to moderately deep water, typically in the 25- to 40-foot range. In these picture-postcard lakes, expect to find the perch close to the bottom. And even though they’ll still move about, it’s usually around the structures, not away from them.
How to lure perch
I’ve modified my thinking in recent years about the best ice-fishing rods for perch. I once favoured light-action sticks, but have moved steadily toward 24- to 30-inch (and even slightly longer) medium-light and medium-action Frabill SenSive XL, Berkley Lightning and Rapala ice rods.
Whichever rod you ultimately choose, make sure it has a soft, lithe tip throughout the top third of the blank to signal bites, and enough backbone in the lower two-thirds to drive the hook into the mouth of a two-pound jumbo. Avoid at all costs those limp-noodle outfits.
I couple my rod with a 1000 series Shimano Symetre spinning reel, spooled with spiderweb-thin, four-pound-test FireLine. And I always use back-to-back uni-knots to attach a metre-long, four-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.
When I’m fishing in a waterbody such as Lake Manitoba, where hordes of nine- to 12-inch perch often swarm beneath the ice, I stick with lures such as the Genz Worm, Quiver Jig, Little Guppy and Marmooska tipped with a wax worm, maggot or salted emerald shiner head. I use the same ones in lakes where the perch grow much larger and there’s heavy pressure from other anglers. I’ll also use a Bug, a weighted, fly-type lure that mimics a nymph. (You can find Bugs in bait shops around the shores of Ontario’s famed Lake Simcoe.)
In most perch waters, however, where the fish still grow huge but are ignored, or when they’re excited, active and aggressive, I favour bigger lures. My favourites include the W30 Williams Wabler (silver/gold), the smallest Jigging Rap and a specialized perch lure called the Smackin Jack. And since most provinces allow you to fish through two holes in the winter, a lively emerald shiner (or salted shiner if live minnows are prohibited) will nab you a bunch of bonus big ‘uns.
Best tactic for perch
The best way to fool the biggest-and most-trophy perch is the tight-line-to-a-bobber technique. Start with a Genz Worm sporting a #8 or #6 hook and tip it with one or two lively maggots, a single Berkley Gulp Maggot or, usually best of all, a tiny, pinched-off piece of Red Wriggler-coloured Gulp Mini Earthworm.
Next, snap on the micro-clip from a Big N Strike Indicator float. Yes, you can use a fixed or sliding float if you prefer, but trust me, the Big N works best because it never freezes onto your line. And you can set it so only a slight portion of the thin end of the bobber pokes out of the water, with most of the float submerged and, therefore, neutrally buoyant. (When you set the hook and begin reeling in a fish, the micro-clip on the Big N will hit the tip of your rod and pop off the line, leaving you free to reel in the fish totally unencumbered.)
Now for the secret. Drop the jig down the hole and lay it on the bottom, keeping your line tight all the way up to the bobber (which will be partly or even fully submerged). When a perch inhales the jig-bait combination, which resembles a succulent chironomid nymph, the bobber will twitch, rising and falling over on the surface of the water. Presto! That’s your cue to set the hook and start hauling ’em in.
If you think that thousands of jumbo perch lakes spread out before you is as good as gets, you’re in for a treat if you expand your horizons just a little and add whitefish to the mix. So many lakes host whitefish—and so few anglers target them—that I truly believe they represent the last frontier in ice fishing.
And on what, you might ask, do I base that bold belief? Consider the evidence from last winter alone: there wasn’t a single occasion when one or two fishing buddies and I failed to catch at least 35 whitefish averaging five to seven pounds. On most excursions, we caught and released more than 100 fish in four or five hours of easy angling. On one occasion, two acquaintances took along a hand counter so they could tally up the number of whitefish they landed during the day. The final click exceeded 350 fish, many weighing close to double digits. If that doesn’t excite you, you’re reading the wrong magazine.
Where to find whitefish
The closest most Canadians ever get to a whitefish is in a fancy restaurant, where it’s bathed in candlelight and smothered under a tangy butter and lemon sauce. That’s not a particularly bad thing. The problem is, most anglers believe whitefish are too difficult to locate and that specialized tools and tactics are needed to catch them. Nonsense.
Start your general search in deep to moderately deep lakes with plenty of clear, cool, well-oxygenated water in the 50- to 90-foot range. A good place to begin is your favourite lake trout lake, because whitefish and lakers share many of the same habitats.
You’re making a big mistake, however, if you restrict your search to trout lakes, since whitefish are more tolerant of slightly warmer water temperatures. And because many of the very best whitefish lakes are a tad too shallow and tepid for trout—you can pinch yourself if this sounds too good to be true—the entire food chain is often channeled into a profuse whitefish population.
In whichever lake you’re targeting, focus your search for winter whitefish on the flat areas atop large, sunken shoals at least 10 to 15 feet deep, but preferably two to three times that depth. Another whitefish magnet is the level bed of the lake where it meets a deep or moderately deep rock, clay or sand structure, such as an underwater point, bar or shoal. You don’t want to fish over the slope of these structures, but rather on the flat bottom of the lake lying immediately adjacent to it.
How to lure whitefish
I prefer medium-heavy-action ice rods paired with Shimano Symetre 2000 reels for whitefish. I spool on 10-pound-test FireLine and splice on an eight- to 10-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.
Rapala Jigging Shad Raps, Jigging Raps and Williams Ice Jigs (especially the half-silver, half-gold Nu-Wrinkle model) are the staples in my whitefish tacklebox. I almost always tip the treble with the head of a shiner. The fourth arrow in my quiver is a single-hook, nose-heavy jig known as a Badd Boyz, which I tip with a white, scented, two-inch Berkley PowerBait or Exude grub. If you can’t catch a whitefish on one of these four lures, you can be reasonably assured there are no whities in the neighbourhood.
Best tactic for whitefish
First, let’s debunk a couple of myths about catching whitefish through the ice. The whitefish’s pronounced, over-slung mouth is used to vacuum up insects and crustaceans off the bottom in a manner that would make Mr. Hoover proud. That leads many anglers to believe you have to spread bait on the lake bottom to attract the fish, then lay your hook amid the chum to catch one. The unspoken rule is that you can’t catch whitefish if your lure is dangling more than a few inches off the bottom.
If that’s true, not one of the several thousand whitefish I’ve seen landed over the past half-dozen years has ever read the rule book. That’s because I’ve yet to spread bait on bottom. And if I had to guess, I’d say the bulk of the whitefish I’ve seen landed were hooked at least 10, and more likely 20, feet up. I know because I’ve watched fish on my sonar unit streak up to crush my lure.
What’s more, you want to work your lure reasonably aggressively, in a manner not unlike the way you would jig for lake trout or northern pike in order to provoke an attack. And that’s the secret: While whitefish certainly use their snouts to vacuum and ferret out insect larvae, aquatic worms and crustaceans from the bottom, they never pass up a tasty fish dinner either.
When you lay a tiny, baited hook on the bottom and attempt to fool a whitefish into sucking it up, you’re playing a finesse game. And the fish generally respond in kind, slowly and deliberately, as though they know you’re hunting for them. But when you jig a small lure in the crystal-clear water above their heads, you dare them into a fight.
And whitefish are the quintessential Broad Street Bullies. They’ll smack a lure so hard you’ll swear you’ve inadvertently hooked a lake trout or snagged a gargantuan pike-every hook on the treble will be buried deep inside its mouth. Until you feel a whitefish wallop a few times, you won’t believe it. But I guarantee the action will have you back at the same spot, at the same time, next year—and with a big smile on your face.