Ask any seasoned perch angler what they think is the best time of year for catching honking-size yellows and, with a twinkle in their eye, they'll likely whisper "last ice." That's when egg-laden females, which are close to their heaviest possible weight, begin to congregate in tight schools. Even better, these pods of a lake's largest perch are within key areas near spawning sites. You just have to find them.
The last-ice period offers you an exciting window of opportunity that can't be duplicated at any other time of year. Before going any further, however, there are two key issues to consider when fishing last ice.
Safety. This is no time to take uncalculated, stupid risks in order to catch a few mammoth perch. Ice is deteriorating and thickness safety guidelines often need to be doubled. Areas near flowing or open water can be treacherous. Even though warm weather might not warrant it, wear a good flotation suit, carry ice picks around your neck, and bring a cell phone, a buddy, and a rope, just in case. Stay clear of old holes that are opening up, pressure cracks, or other rotten-looking ice. And leave your ATV or snowmobile at home. Walk out.
Conservation. Who can, with clear conscience, condone excessive harvest of big egg-laden females? These are the most genetically valuable fish in a lake and are close to giving birth to thousands of young that also have the genes to grow large. For any lake to continue producing trophy perch, we must all do our small part and release most of the largest fish to spawn new generations of giants, so that our grandkids can enjoy the same great fishing we do. Experienced perch anglers will also tell you that 10- to 11-inch perch taste better and have as much meat or more on them than do larger females.
As with any fish, some waterbodies are better suited to producing big perch than others. Of course, "big" is relative. Some perch waters seldom produce jumbos that even reach 12 inches, whereas in others these foot-long beauties hardly warrant extra attention. Having said that, even in non-trophy waters last ice still offers anglers an excellent opportunity to catch the biggest perch in those systems. . Locating big perch is by no means a sure thing at last ice, but there is one constant. When mere weeks away from spawning, female perch begin to move toward spawning sites adjacent to rivermouths, harbors, weedy bays, dredged boat channels and lagoons. Now, before you begin drilling holes directly in these areas, understand that female perch will still be feeding and therefore will not necessarily be right at typical "mouth" areas. In fact, chances are they could be a football field or three away from them.
Depth is relative too. In some lakes, last-ice jumbos can be in water as skinny as 5 feet. In others, they hold at 25 feet or more. In clear lakes, target spooky shallow perch at first light. As the day progresses, they make their way to nearby deeper water. Often, to be successful, last-ice anglers have to drill hole after hole in order to keep up with the fish. The great thing about last-ice, however, is that unlike mid-winter perch, their movements are now often only a short distance from where you last had them going. So, instead of moving across the lake like you might in early February to find where a school of mixed-size perch went, you're now moving a few short yards to relocate a group of big perch. When you determine which direction the school is travelling, you can often have outstanding results for hours on end, even if you only catch a handful of big perch from each hole.
What about those huge schools of perch out in the middle of the lake that you're still catching fish from during late winter? Not all big females ripen at the same time, and likely there will still be some of them left in deeper water. If you simply want to catch decent-sized perch for dinner, then these mid-lake haunts are where you want to be, because the majority of a lake's males will still be out there too. Overall, there are probably still many more perch in deeper water than in close. However, if you're looking for a trophy perch for the wall or a couple of hawgs just for bragging rights, then play the game that offers you the highest odds. And, in this case, you've got to look for smaller groups of primarily big females.
The last-ice period varies, depending on location, the waterbody type, and the weather. The actual timeframe until ice is unfit for travel can be as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks. an early ice-out.
What triggers movements of big perch is anyone's guess - possibly warmer weather, increased light penetration, the changing photo-light period, or perhaps because the fish are simply nearing the end of the female gestation period. However, these movements to shallower water signal that winter is ending.
Catching big perch is the easy part. If you're already an accomplished winter perch angler, you know that with increased water clarity and more fishing pressure in many of our province's best perch lakes, offering lifelike presentations is becoming increasingly important.
Look for weedlines or patches near spawning sites, if you want to fish where perch are feeding, but don't go overboard. I think fisheries scientists still don't have a good handle on the extent of how far perch roam in a day, but my hunch is that it's much farther than many of us realize. Therefore, setting up on a sand flat or a drop-off a fair distance away from the closest weeds is not out of the question. Just be prepared to leave if you don't get a bite within 15 minutes or so.
Search for active perch with baits such as the smallest jigging Rapala or Nils Master, a spoon, or a spoon/dropper combo. Once found, working more reluctant biters with tiny, yet still heavy, jigs is often necessary. I frequently add a tiny soft-plastic crayfish imitation or rig them as a small tube jig, and I practically always sweeten the offering with several luscious, live, juicy maggots. I particularly like adding both natural and blood red maggies. To keep these critters extra happy, I store them in dry oatmeal laced with crushed garlic. That's just too good for fat mama perch to refuse.
Once you've located a few large perch, it doesn't always mean you can get them to bite. Those who play with underwater cameras or portable sonar units can attest to that. There are some tricks, though, you can try. First, use the lightest line you can get away with - never over 4-pound test - and a light-action, sensitive ice rod with a soft tip and stiff backbone.
Begin fishing a jig just off bottom by first holding it steady. If there are no takers, jiggle it a bit, then hold steady again. Still nothing? "Thrum" the bait in one spot by either shaking your rod with a nervous-like twitch or by pulling the line with your index finger right in front of the reel spool. If this fails to produce, work different levels within the last three feet or so near bottom. Try bouncing your jig right on bottom, then lift it up just an inch or so before holding it steady.
Always focus on your line and ice hole. Watch where the line meets the water. Any movement means a fish has the bait. Set the hook with a steady, deliberate upwards motion, not a jerky yank, which can pull the bait out of the fish's mouth.
One point in your favour is that schools of big perch can be found in almost the same location day after day until last ice becomes no ice. I use a GPS unit to record these hotspots. Fish them in prime times, early morning and late afternoon. Try to find several hotspots in your favorite lake, because the same ones will not always produce year after year.
End of the season Perch Fishing is the time of the year.