I am not sure what allure ice fishing or yellow perch had on me, but both suckered me in quickly. A high-mountain reservoir contained yellow perch near my Appalachian home town, but I could never quite connect with them like folks who knew the lake better than I. They were forbidden fruit. So, when I ended up at the University of Connecticut for undergrad, the yellow perch bug bit pretty hard.
My first experience with ice fishing was like baptism. It opened my soul to winter rejuvenation. As I stood in the warmth of the afternoon sun laying a soft glow across the expanse of snow and ice, a couple fellow fisheries students, Matt and Ralph, and I engaged in small talk of coursework, fishing, basketball (Go Huskies!) and grabbing a beer once we finally called it a day.
Three lines of tip-ups stretched in all directions covering a variety of depths and terrain features. Tip-ups are small, folding frames with a spool of line and a flag. You drop the line through the ice, bend the flag to a catch point that also holds the spool in place, and set the frame over the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the flag pops.
“FLAG!” Matt hollered, pointing to the line behind Ralph. The farthest tip-up had tripped, sitting over-top a saddle between two islands covering about 12 feet of water. We ambled over to see the line slowly turning off the spool. Ralph carefully removed the tip-up from the hole, stripped out some extra slack, set the tip-up aside and softly gripped the line until he felt tension from the fish. A swift jerk set the hook in the corner of the jaw of yet another 10-inch yellow perch.
Regulations allowed six lines per angler at the time, so we set 18 tip-ups baited with a variety of live minnows and night crawlers. The action was slow. At first. A flag would pop here and there with plenty of time for chewing the fat and sipping cayenne-laced hot chocolate. But as the day wore on and the temperature warmed a bit, the flags came quick and steady. I don’t recall how many fish we caught that day, but there were times when all four of us were running between tip-ups with up to a dozen flags up at once.
Okay, I know what you are thinking. “Why do I care about yellow perch when I can fish for pike?” Have you ever eaten walleye? (Assuming you nodded yes). Closely related to walleye, yellow perch offer equal table fare; flaky, white and mild flavored. Lightly battered in the pan, yellow perch makes Baha fish tacos to die for. That’s why you should care about yellow perch. Additionally, yellow perch are gorgeous through the ice; the peak of their fitness in my experience. And, catching 50 to 100 a day is not uncommon when the bite is on.
New England and Great Lakes region lakes with healthy yellow perch populations are seemingly a dime a dozen, and from my experience, there are a couple standard, simple techniques that will put yellow perch on ice just about anywhere.
Knowing the bathymetry of the lake you are fishing is key to identifying productive areas. Bathymetric maps are handy and I look for humps with a base between 10 and 20 feet deep that rise up four to eight feet. Yellow perch spend time on top of and around these humps.
Another option is looking for saddles between two humps within that same 10 to 20-foot depth range. I punch a series of holes across that saddle to fish each depth and location. Yellow perch tend to school up, so finding one generally means finding many.
Tip-ups are a heck of a lot of fun for a number of reasons.
1) Tip-ups allow you to effectively fish a variety of water at once while you shoot the breeze with friends or jig other areas to hone in on a productive spot.
2) Depending on how and where you fish, fishing tip-ups with bait can be like grabbing a present from under the tree on Christmas morning. When a flag pops, it can be anything from yellow perch to rainbow trout and toothy critters like chain pickerel and northern pike.
3) There is something unusually exciting about seeing that flag pop; likely the anticipation of the flag and the potential for a big mystery fish on the other end.
4) Hand-lining fish through the ice is a delicate task requiring some patience and a little technique-honing with experience.
I rig my tip-ups with 20- to 30-pound Dacron or braided running line tipped with 18- to 24-inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon. I recommend rigging #4 Gamakatsu or Eagle Claw Lazer-Sharp hooks, hooked through the dorsal of small- to medium-sized common shiners, or run through a half nightcrawler with a trailing, wiggling tail.
I typically set my baits 6- to 12-inches off the bottom and fish them for at least an hour before I check them or change the depth if they are not producing.
Jig rods are a must for ice fishing. No matter how much I enjoy fishing tip-ups, a full day on the ice can make you a bit antsy. I always set the legal maximum number of tip-ups that still allow me one line to jig the time between flags while the tip-ups continue to fish in the background. Furthermore, jigging can key you into where fish are, what they are doing and what it takes to entice a strike, which is of particular importance if the tip-ups are just not producing.
While small jig rods are available specifically for ice fishing, a regular fishing rod can be used. I recommend 4-pound fluorocarbon line and glow-in-the-dark jigs 1/32nd to 1/64th ounce. I usually tip the jig with a small piece of nightcrawler, meal worm or spike (maggot).
When fishing humps, I like to drop my bait or jig to the base of the hump, then work my way up the side to the top. This means punching a few holes around it to work it over properly.
Drop the jig to about six-inches off the bottom. You may need to experiment with jigging speed to entice a strike. If no action, slowly work your way up through the water column a half foot at a time to see if you can locate fish at a different depth. If you still haven’t picked up a fish, move to the next hole or a new area. Don’t be afraid to move around.
Mind the Ice
If you take to the ice this winter, remember to exercise caution. Six inches thick is my minimum safe-standard for weight-bearing ice as I am weighing in at about 270-pounds these days. Clear, black ice is as pure and strong as it gets. White ice has impurities such as air bubbles and potentially debris that can cause weakness.
Always carry a length of rope to toss to someone in the event they fall through. Never try to approach too closely and risk falling through yourself.
I personally wear a Coast Guard-approved arctic survival suit with built in thermal and flotation layers. I look silly, but stay comfortably warm. I also keep a pair if ice picks strapped to my body that I can used to pull myself up onto the ice if I fall through.
A wealth of additional safety information and gear is available online. Fortunately, in all my years of ice fishing I have yet to see anyone break through.
Playing the Waiting Game
Patience is key. With your tip-ups fishing, put some distance between you and your set. Build a fire, enjoy a tasty beverage and light up the camp stove. Hot chocolate and brats over the coals or in a pan on the stove are hard to beat when waiting out the bite. And when that flag points to the sky, remember to keep your cool (easier said than done when fishing with kids). Running to the tip-up and yanking it out of the hole can spook fish into dropping the bait and leaving the area.
If you are anything like me, you dread the cabin fever of the winter months ahead. If so, round up the family, throw the dog in the back, and slip out on the ice for some care-free fishing. By the end of the day, you should have a few tasty fish for the pan and plum tuckered kids. I don’t recall a trip where I didn’t catch trout and bass when targeting yellow perch.
The only way to avoid fun is to take it seriously. And if all else fails, you will at least enjoy a renewed appreciation for the warm confines of home.