It was an interesting start to the day. The GPS coordinates I had received from a fellow angler were supposedly going to direct me to a super panfish hotspot on a fairly large lake. Now that I was at the lake, I began to have my doubts.
The super hotspot was in the middle of a sea of ice houses. Although I had expected some competition on this popular body of water, I did not expect to be surrounded by anglers.
I could tell from the looks of my two companions that they had their doubts, as well. When they wondered what kind of mess I had gotten them into this time, I explained that my source for the GPS coordinates was very reliable.
In an effort to calm their fears and to reassure my own doubts, I referenced my GPS and LakeMaster chip (www.lakemap.com) to show them how we were perfectly positioned on a two foot break on an otherwise flat piece of structure. With all of the enthusiasm I could muster, I suggested we start drilling holes.
After scattering a dozen and half holes amongst the houses, we started the search process. Although our Vexilars did not show suspended fish in every hole, there appeared to be plenty of activity. The next step was to see if anything would bite.
It soon became apparent that the sniffers greatly outnumbered the biters. Even so, we did manage to pluck a feisty crappie off of the bottom every now and then, but basically the action was slow
We weren’t too far into the adventure when I decided it was time to mix things up. I knew what was not working and felt I had nothing to lose by doing a little experimentation.
For me, experimentation starts with downsizing both my line weight and jig size. It also means switching to a very light spring bobber rod that will detect the faintest of bites.
From my arsenal, I pulled out a rod rigged with one-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice and a Northland 1/28 ounce tungsten Mooska jig. This combination of super light line and small but heavy tungsten jig had worked for me before.
In a hole that had not yielded a fish, I instantly pulled two 12 inch crappie. They were followed by a couple of very respectable bluegills.
Naturally, my sudden success not only caught the attention of my angling buddies, but also brought a couple of people out of their fish houses to see what I was doing. What I was doing was pretty much what I had done for the first hour. What was different was the equipment.
Catching finicky winter fish is frequently a challenging proposition. I have found that many things can help turn the odds in your favor. Fresh maggots, glow jigs, Vanish fluorocarbon line and quality rods can all help. However, there are still days when downsizing equipment is the most important thing that can be done.
There is no doubt that fishing with super, ultra light equipment is not my first choice. However, there are those days when I tolerate the inconveniences associated with a light rig especially if it will help me catch fish.
During the course of a winter of chasing panfish, I like to roam. I find it difficult to return to the same lake again and again, even if there is a respectable bite taking place. New water and fresh ice just appeals to me.
My roaming itch is easy to scratch. I don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to feel like I have been fishing. Instead, I like to focus on lakes that are relatively close and are within an hour’s drive. In a normal winter on the ice, that usually translates into 15 to 20 bodies of water.
Although I do throw in a few new lakes to my repertoire each winter, I primarily go to the same water each year. This gives me a chance to generate a basic knowledge base on a particular lake and increases my chances for success when I do return to a body of water.
There are several facts I have learned while working panfish on my milk run of lakes. One of these is the concept of repetition. Panfish, especially those that are suspended over a deep basin, have a tendency to show up in the same locations year after year.
Undoubtedly, there are fluctuations in the population of catchable fish. Panfish, especially crappie, are quite cyclical in nature and can go from a big year class to nothing in a short period of time. The opposite is also true.
Fishing pressure also has an impact on panfish populations. There have been winters when the bite has been consistent for extended periods of time on a particular lake. During these long stretches of activity, a population of respectable fish can be decimated over the course of a winter. It can actually take a couple of years for one of these lakes to recover.
There are some important tools involved with locating and catching fish on many different lakes. The first ingredient for success is having a quality lake map and GPS. I have come to depend greatly on LakeMaster products (www.lakemap.com) to help guide me to fishing locations. Once I do find a spot, you can be sure it will get saved as a waypoint.
Even though fish may not be located in the exact spot every time I head to a lake, having a starting place to look is extremely valuable. I find it astounding how often fish are found in the same general vicinity year after year. This is especially true of deep basin fish.
Another tool that is absolutely critical is a sonar unit. If you are fishing where there are no fish, you cannot catch anything. It is that simple.
Sonar units, such as the Vexilar I use, are extremely important when working through the fish location process on different lakes. If you are not certain where the fish are going to be, it is absolutely critical you have some idea of what is under the ice. This includes weeds, depth, bottom hardness and of course, fish.
None of this “looking” process can be accomplished unless you have a way of getting a reading to the bottom. Many times this translates into drilling a hole every time you want to check things out.
Whenever possible, I try to avoid drilling holes until I am ready to fish. Usually, I find that by kicking away the snow and pouring a little water on the ice, I can get my Vexilar to read through the ice to show me what is happening underneath. I only drill holes after I find fish or an area that needs better bottom definition.
Fishing different water throughout the winter period has always been something I enjoy. As a general rule, fish are somewhat predictable and are frequently found in the same locations year after year.
Spending the time to locate new fishing hotspots and checking out the old ones is an enjoyable part of my winter routine.
The bluegill and crappie bite had been quite impressive on this Northern Minnesota lake. Although the fish weren’t record breaking in size, they were very respectable. Even though they weren’t stacked in every single hole we drilled, there were enough fish in the area that we never had to look long to find action.
As is often the case with the late season bite, our Vexilars were showing the active fish several feet off of the bottom in deep water. The bottom huggers were lethargic sniffers while the suspended fish could frequently be coaxed into biting.
It was business as usual in the particular hole I was working when I noticed a line on my Vexilar above all of the others. Instantly, I made the adjustment to see if this new visitor to my screen was an interested biter.
Once in front of the fish, it only took a couple of shakes from my Hexi Fly and maggots before my spring bobber dipped and I set the hook. I knew instantly this was not a bluegill or crappie. It had weight and power that I hadn’t experienced on this trip.
It took quite a long time on my light tackle to tire this critter out. When I finally got its head started up the hole, I was not surprised to see a good sized whitefish on the end of my line.
It seems that several times each winter I end up hooking something out of the ordinary. Over the years my crappie gear has yielded suckers, walleye, bass, northern, catfish, and yes, tullibee and whitefish.
The trick to catching the unexpected fish starts way before they are seen on your electronics. The process actually starts with your equipment.
Although I fish two-pound-test line for most of my winter panfish, I am very fussy about which line I use. There is not a lot of forgiveness in light line. One mistake and it is over. I have found Berkley Micro-Ice to be ideal for winter angling.
Next, the rod and reel need to be matched to the weight of the line. Longer rods offer more forgiveness than shorter ones. The bend in the rod absorbs a lot of pressure and helps tire the fish out.
The reel is also critical. It has to have a drag that works smoothly even in very cold conditions. If your drag hangs up on a good fish, you will be retying.
I also believe in using a tightline system of presentation. This allows me to quickly change depths to get in front of the fish. These unexpected fish are usually just roaming through and if you can’t get their attention quickly, it won’t happen.
Catching unexpected fish through the ice is not an unusual phenomenon. I wouldn’t say I expect the unexpected, but it does happen often enough I am no longer surprised by the event. Large fish seem to have no trouble sucking in a tiny morsel if it is presented right in front of their face.
The key in successfully landing the unexpected fish is being able to react instantly when it comes onto your screen and then have equipment that will handle the ensuing battle. When it all comes together, catching the unexpected can really make a day!
It seems like I am always searching for time to participate in things I like to do. Schedules and deadlines have a way of creeping into the mix and forcing me to backburner some of my favorite activities. The day-to-day events we call life forces us all to compromise and prioritize.
When it comes to putting things in order of importance, I have gradually been moving perch fishing higher up on the list. It isn’t that I haven’t always enjoyed chasing perch, it just seems like it is more fun than it used to be.
I am not the only one that feels this way about the lowly perch. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go or who you talk to, perch fishing questions and comments always seem to surface.
One of the reasons perch are becoming more popular has to do with their eating habits. They are usually daytime biters and can be caught on a variety of gear. They are also scrappy fighters for their size.
Perch are excellent table fare. Although their tough scales make them more difficult to clean than other fish, their taste and texture on the plate is hard to beat.
Perch limits are also quite generous. In Minnesota, the limit is 20 a day with 40 in possession.
Finding a lake to chase perch on is not very hard. Most big-water walleye lakes have a healthy population of jumbos. Perch activity is a normal part of the reporting process for websites.
My favorite perch lake is Mille Lacs, located in Central Minnesota. This 132,000 acre body of water is home to a very healthy population of jumbo perch and is definitely becoming one of the premier perch waters in the area.
I have to admit that I cheat just a little when I head to the big water. In an effort to get the latest information about the perch bite, I check in with Mike Christensen from Hunter Winfield’s Resort in Isle.
As part of his ownership responsibilities, Christensen guides winter anglers for both walleye and perch. Since he is on the ice every day, I can get a pretty accurate report about where to go and what to use.
Although Christensen’s clients catch perch all winter long, he believes the best action starts to set up after the first late winter thaw. This thaw triggers an insect larvae feeding binge that starts the spring migration to spawning grounds.
From my experience, the bite can range from incredible to fussy. When the fish are fussy, I have found that neutral colored jigs, such as Woodtick Bro Bugs tipped with Euro larvae are hard to beat. Scaling down to two-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice can also make a difference.
In addition to presenting good looking baits, Christensen believes that bottom consistency is an important part of the equation. He feels transition areas where gravel turns to mud are ideal. He also emphasized the need to be mobile. Perch travel in large, loose schools and may have to be tracked down.
Winter jumbo perch fishing is high on my list of favorite activities. Although there are days when the bite can be challenging, there are also times when the action is nothing short of phenomenal.
Either way, I will prioritize several jumbo perch trips into my schedule this winter.
Like every other angler, I am very skilled at storing fishing events in my memory bank. I keep thinking that one of these days the memory vault will be full, but it hasn’t happened yet.
When it comes to retrieving memories, some are easier to find than others. One event that often crosses my mind taught me a lesson on the relationship between proper equipment and utilizing electronics. Let me explain.
It was several years ago that I found myself fishing a deep basin crappie bite on a cold morning during the early ice period. The fish were willing biters but were such roamers it was hard to keep up with them. They also changed depth according to their location in the basin.
After drilling many holes, I attempted to follow them and was somewhat successful as I pulled out a fish every now and then. Even though my success wasn’t impressive, I did eventually attract another group of anglers that rode in on four-wheelers.
They were very courteous and drilled their own holes instead of using mine. They also had a couple of Vexilars and soon located fish. The problem was they were using bobbers and not tightlining.
I watched their frustration mount as they kept adjusting the depth of the float to match the level of the fish. About the time they got the float set, the fish were gone. In the meantime, I continued to pop a few more slaps which only added to their misery.
I was sure they would eventually see the madness in their method and get rid of the bobbers, but they didn’t. Instead, they insisted on fishing with floats even if it meant not catching anything.
There are times when working a float system for crappie is ideal. However, there are also times when a float presentation simply is not as efficient as a tightline presentation.
A lot of it comes back to the use of electronics. A Vexilar is a really important tool for locating winter fish. However, it is also a tool for keeping your bait in front of the fish after you find them.
A classic example of this happened to me last winter. I was fishing for photo caliber crappie with photographer, Brad Veenstra. The fish we were targeting were about 40 feet down in 50 feet of water. I was watching my Vexilar when I noticed a heavy red line come onto the screen at 30 feet.
Since I was tightlining, all I had to do was turn the crank a few times and I had my bait in front of this red mark. A second later, I had very respectable fish on the line.
The two-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice did its job and allowed me to land a
very plump walleye. Without utilizing quality electronics and fishing a bobberless tightline presentation, this is a fish I probably would never have caught.
Those that fish with electronics know how important they are to winter success. They allow anglers to read depth, bottom consistency and locate fish. However, they also allow anglers to match up their bait to the exact depth the fish are at.
Being able to keep your lure in the fish zone is what winter fishing is all about. Choosing the best presentation for the conditions will maximize your success.
Winter and crappie fishing go hand-in-hand or me There are certainly other fish to catch, but crappies are always a treat. One of the reasons I like crappies is the fact they can be caught during the daylight hours. The key is to find a deep basin that holds fish. On this particular day we were fishing in 35 feet of water.
My standard fare for working crappies is a light action rod spooled with two-pound-test Micro Ice. When the fish are finicky I like to use a spring bobber. My favorite lure is a #10 Fire Ant Bro Bug from Northland Tackle. I tip this lure with Euro larvae which are also called maggots.
Every year, when the frozen season descends upon us, I find myself following two very consistent paths. One trail leads me to a number of local lakes that have a history of quality winter fishing. The other leads me to new lakes and an opportunity to explore unfamiliar horizons.
One part of me says I have plenty of places to fish that are proven hotspots. The other side encourages me to take a look around to see what else is out there. After all, if it wasn’t for exploration, I would never have discovered many of my perennial favorites.
Whichever path I take on any given day, I depend greatly on electronics to lead the way. The two key components are my GPS with a map chip and sonar.
Although nearly every winter angler I know utilizes some type of sonar for their fishing, not nearly as many have discovered the value of a GPS.
When fishing on local lakes, I have every spot that has produced fish for me marked on my handheld GPS unit. Although not every single spot will produce year after year, I can be pretty sure that somewhere on the lake, there will be a location from yesteryears that will hold fish. Finding them is merely a matter of running through the waypoints.
On a new lake, this process works a little differently. A classic case in point happened last winter.
A fishing crony and I were exploring a new lake in hopes of finding some quality winter panfish. Although we had a general idea of where to go, the specifics of locating the spot on the spot still had to be accomplished.
By pouring water on the ice and taking a reading with our sonar, we were able to cover the deep basin location quite thoroughly without ever drilling a hole. Once we located an area that held fish, our trusty StrikeMasters got a workout.
The tool that guided us through this process was the GPS and LakeMaster depth chip. By utilizing the chip, we could see exactly where we were in relationship to the changes in depth. It allowed us to focus on the edges of the basin which is where the fish usually are.
Once we started catching fish, we found that the big bluegills were a little shallower than the crappie. Again, by using the chip and depth contours on the GPS, we could work along the contour at the exact depth where the bluegills were located.
Eventually, the sunfish action dried up and we went back to working the crappie. These fish continued to stay in the area for some time, but gradually moved out more into the basin and deeper water as the morning progressed. The GPS helped us identify the deeper water that the fish were attracted to.
There is no question that winter angling is more of a challenge than summer. Although I believe the fish may not roam as much during the cold water period, the process of dealing with thick ice, augers and the cold make the search process much more difficult.
For this reason, I am a huge fan of utilizing electronic gadgetry to my advantage. I have learned time and again how important proper equipment is to the overall success of a fishing season.
Whichever path I take, perennial hotspots or new locations, electronics play a critical role in my fishing routine.
I have been criticized a time or two for taking along too many fishing rods when heading to the ice. Taunts like, “You can only fish with one at a time!” are common. I really don’t mind. It seems as though there are always critics in whatever a person does. However, I have often taught my critics the value of being loaded and ready when on the ice.
One thing I have learned over the years is the fact cold brings out the very worst in equipment. If a person is going to have trouble with a reel malfunctioning, it is going to happen on a day when it is too cold to do on the ice repairs or adjustments. A backup combo that is ready to go is pretty nice at a time like this.
There is also the issue of presentation. I really dislike retying jigs when my fingers are numb. I find it is much easier to utilize another rod that is rigged and ready than it is to continually retie.
Like everyone else, I have my favorite “go to” lures that seem to consistently catch fish. If I find lethargic fish when I am hole-hopping, it often pays off to be able to change the presentation. A classic example of this is the use of plastics.
There are times when plastics, like Bro’s Slug Bug, are all a person needs to trigger fish. And then you hit a hole where the plastic doesn’t seem to have the appeal it did earlier. Being able to drop a jig tipped with maggots to waiting fish will often do the trick.
Line weight is another matter. There are those days when I can double my catch by switching from two-pound-test Micro Ice to one-pound-test. Having rods rigged with each makes the transition fast and smooth.
The same can be said of spring bobbers. Although I usually prefer bouncing a jig with a tightline system, there are days when spring bobbers are clearly the way to go.
Spring bobbers aren’t all the same, either. There are different styles that have varied levels of sensitivity. Some spring bobbers do not work well on the open ice because they freeze up. Having a couple of different models to choose from helps.
Walleye rods are no different. On some of my rods, I utilize ultra thin FireLine Crystal while others are straight mono. Having a couple of rods rigged with floats and a couple set for jig fishing keeps me prepared for whatever I find.
It would be great if a person could predict exactly what the fish were going to do before we ever left home. That way, preparation would be simple and much of our equipment could be left behind. However, we all know that is not how it works. Every day of fishing is a different day with different moods and different preferences.
It is impossible to be totally prepared for every twist and turn we will encounter on a typical fishing day, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Having a variety of quality rod and reel combos that are loaded and ready for different situations does help.
I don’t know of very many honest to goodness rags to riches stories, but I would have to say perch come about as close to a fairytale as any fishing story I know. These golden beauties that were once maligned as trash fish now sit near the top of the heap.
I find this whole perch realignment to be quite fascinating. There was a time when they were thought of as a worthless bait stealer. When anglers did catch them, many threw them on the ice in an effort to show their disdain for this pesky marauder.
Today, jumbo perch are looked at much differently. Today, anglers will drive hundreds of miles to have a crack at catching big perch. Perch undoubtedly generate a lot of excitement.
When it comes to perch lakes in the Upper Midwest, there are quite a few good ones. Usually these lakes are large and sustain a healthy walleye population along with the perch.
A classic example of this is Mille Lacs Lake in Central Minnesota. This 132,000 acre fish factory is home to a very respectable population of jumbo perch. Many of these perch measure in at ten inches, but you will also find 11s and 12s in the mix.
From my experience, late ice is always a good time of the year to be thinking about chasing perch. These fish get quite aggressive and hungry as they start their annual migration to shallow water to spawn.
To get more specific information on Mille Lacs perch, I talked with Mike Christensen from Hunter Winfield’s Resort, located in Isle on the south end of the lake. According to Christensen, the Mille Lacs bite has been pretty consistent all winter.
Although anglers have been catching perch in his rental houses throughout the frozen water season, Christensen believed the best bite didn’t really get going until after the first big thaw. Once the snow was off of the ice, the perch activity really picked up.
As far as location, Christensen felt the deep water transitions where the gravel turned to mud were key areas. He believed the insect larvae available at these locations were responsible for concentrating the fish.
Christensen went on to say that these fish can be pretty finicky at times. He preferred to use spring bobbers and even a camera to help detect the light bites. When asked about the best bait, he felt anglers should try to mimic baits that look similar to what the fish were spitting up.
From my own Mille Lacs experiences, I have had good luck using Euro larvae, or maggots as they are often called. It seems the larva smell associated with maggots is something perch like. I have also utilized small jigging spoons tipped with a crappie minnow head. Some anglers are successful with a small minnow under a bobber. The #8 Bro Bug and plastics, such as Northland’s Slug Bug tipped with maggots, have also produced fish for me.
There is one other technique I like to use that often works. Many times I will drop my jig right down to the bottom. There is something about stirring up the sediments on the bottom that brings fish in and makes them interested in eating. Pulling your jig slowly off of the bottom may mimic emerging larvae.
I was in total agreement with Christensen when he mentioned the need for mobility. Perch will roam in large schools and can create a feast or famine situation if you are in the wrong spot. Waiting them out does work, but I have had more success hole hopping and trying to follow the fish.
Jumbo perch are certainly a quality quarry for anglers. Not only are they scrappy fighters when you hook them, they are excellent on the table. With so many lakes available for perch fishing, it is not hard to understand their rise in popularity
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