Winter fishing for perch and whitefish
Try something new this season and go for these underfished species
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.