By Cory Richardt
Ice-fishing season across Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota can be cut into three phases. The early and late-ice periods are far and away the shortest and most exciting for ice anglers, as perch are the most active during these times.
The mid-ice phase of ice-fishing season, however, is the longest and most frustrating. During this phase temperatures can bottom out below zero, and days can go by before the thermometer climbs back into positive numbers. Bluebird skies, sun dogs and barometric pressures soaring above 30 are more common during this period than the other two phases, and they all add to the difficulty of coercing perch to bite.
I’m sure you’ve heard the No. 1 cliché during mid-ice, which is “you’ve got to size down.” While it’s all fine and good coming from professional ice anglers and tackle-brand pro staffers with endless resources at their disposal, it really doesn’t do a lot of good for guys like you and me who find ourselves at the bait shop staring at an endless array of jig choices, hoping our next $4.99 purchase will be the saving grace and not a bust.
After years of trial and error and plenty of lessons learned from other successful anglers, I’ve learned a thing or two on how to cure the mid-ice blues and catch more perch. Here are some tips that will help you turn mid-ice into an enjoyable and successful phase of the ice-fishing season.
No Silver Bullet
This should come as no surprise, but there is no miracle lure that will instantly turn a disinterested perch into a hungry one. Sorry, everyone, but it still doesn’t exist.
There are, however, a few go-to jigs and colors that I stand by when perch get finicky.
The first lure I ever remember ice fishing with was a 1/8-ounce blue and silver Acme Kastmaster. I remember catching so many perch out of Lake Farley in Milbank, S.D., with this old-time gem, and lo and behold it still does the trick.
It seems to me that when all else fails, a pure silver or gold-colored Kastmaster tipped with a single red spike or red plastic of some sort will almost always entice a perch to bite. Within the last couple years, Acme has come out with a rattling version of this trusty jig that I have also found to be quite useful when perch are more active or if I’m fishing water with more stain to it.
Like I said, though, I use the 1/8-ounce version exclusively. Any smaller, and your jigging action is not as crisp. If you go any heavier, you lose out on the sensitivity of the famed “up-bite,” which we’ll go into more later.
The advent of the tungsten jig has revolutionized the middle-ice phase. With tungsten, you can use a smaller jig head and still get it to sink to the bottom faster while maintaining tension on the line.
I am not ashamed to admit that I am fully committed to this style of jig, and I have a dedicated tackle box that contains only tungsten jigs. I have tried nearly every color, size, hook style and shape of these little things and have also discovered that my best luck is with shiny silver, shiny gold and rainbow trout colors. I also typically only use the 5 mm (roughly a 1/12-ounce) size.
Countless companies make tungsten jigs now, but some hold up better than others in terms of hook quality and paint durability. Custom Jigs and Spins manufactures a Chekai-style tungsten jig that happens to be my favorite. Simply tying one of these on is no guarantee that you will begin to make a fish bite, though, because you need to work it like a tungsten jig.
If I’m dangling tungsten, I use slower, deliberate jigging strokes so that I maintain line tension throughout the entire movement. In my experience during this time period, a disinterested perch will only bite on the falling movement, or sometimes if a jig is held still in between jigging cadences.
When I have a mark on the flasher that is not being aggressive, I jig slowly, keeping the line taut through the fall. If a perch bites the jig on the falling motion, you will see the line go limp — time to set the hook!
While the jig is motionless, keep an eye yet again on the line and the tip of your rod. If you see your rod tip bend upward ever so slightly, like all the tension has been removed, you have just experienced the up-bite, which means it’s time for another hookset.
Nonaggressive perch will most often feed in an upward motion. For this reason, albeit among many others, I choose to not go cheap on my ice rods. The Glacial Lakes Outdoors Pan Hammer rod has helped me detect countless up-bites. This rod has a noodle-style tip with a firm, medium-action backbone. Using this durable rod I have caught everything from baby perch up to walleyes and pike that have been too big to keep.
While using a tungsten jig on this rod, the rod tip will hang down slightly when it’s held in a stationary or deadstick position. This allows you to see the up-bite, and, in most cases, you will even be able to feel the up-bite if you’re using light enough line.
As if we haven’t discussed the tungsten jig enough yet, there is another very important aspect of these lures that you need to keep in mind. When you catch a fish or miss a bite, you need to reel up and check the positioning of your jig as it hangs in the air.
These jigs are intended to be fished in a horizontal manner, and if the knot has moved to the head side of the loop, it will hang at a 45-degree angle in the water, which is unnatural to predator fish. You need to move the knot to the hook side of the loop to ensure it hangs in the proper position. If the knot has slipped, all you have to do is hold the head of the jig and pull the line toward the hook and the knot will shift positions.
Before I drop any tungsten or horizontal-presentation-style jig down the hole, I will just barely drop it into the water and give it a few practice strokes. If any adjustments need to be made to level out the jig, you can make them and see the difference it makes. When predatory fish, especially perch, aren’t cooperating, this simple adjustment will drastically change their reaction to seeing your bait.
Bait choice is also a make-or-break proposition during middle ice. I keep it simple and use a red Trigger X Mustache plastic worm in the 1.5-inch size or the new Clam Bloodworm plastic bait along with a single red spike. I use this bait combination 90 percent of the time I’m on the ice, regardless of the lure I am using.
This combo allows you to make small, subtle jig strokes or wrist flicks that result in large, lifelike bait movements in the water column. In the waters of northeastern South Dakota, perch typically feed on blood worms, water bugs and freshwater shrimp in the deep-water basins during this time period, so it is important to mimic what they are already in the mood for.
Keep in mind that a minnow or smaller fish presents a larger meal, but it’s also a meal the perch will have to work harder for. The cold, low-oxygen water of mid-ice is not the type of environment in which fish want to expel more energy than necessary. This is akin to a person running a mile at sea level and then trying to run a mile in Colorado at a much higher altitude with less oxygen — same concept.
Against the Grain
“Where should I go once I hit the ice?”
If there has ever been a question asked more than this one in a bait shop, I’d like to know what it is! During the mid-ice phase, I go away from the people. I don’t want to be in a shanty town, as this presents too much pressure and competition.
If an entire city is camped out on the lake I plan on fishing, I go about a quarter-mile away from an edge that is still in the main basin. I will, however, go to the outermost edge of the basin and find the first contour mark that shows a rise in the bottom. I will start there and follow that line around the main lake basin. Perch are most often basin dwellers during this mid-ice phase, but I have found that the more active fish roam the outer edges of the basin rather than simply swim around the deeper water.
The last technique I will mention goes completely against everything I have just told you. I stumbled on this tactic after nearly pounding my head into the ice in frustration as I stared at flicker after flicker of fish on the Vexilar swimming up to my jig before diving back down just as quickly as they rose.
Sometimes the deep basin is simply not where the active fish are. When I am nearly ready to head home and accept defeat for the day, I will find a shallower area closer to shore. If I can be near a weed bed, then it’s even better. I often try to find a smaller inside turn or bay just off of a point and jig with a No. 3 Rapala Ultra-Light Rippin’ Rap.
This lure is aggressive, and I fish it as such. I use about 6- to 8-inch jig strokes and allow a 10- to 20-second pause in between the next set of strokes.
We have all been there before, when perch just don’t do what they are supposed to or they aren’t where they are supposed to be. That’s when you have to think using a different perspective and fish in a new way. Using this method I have caught the largest perch of my life along with some giant bonus walleyes.
When it’s all said and done, if you do not have confidence in your gear and presentation, then you will not be successful. You will still be lucky from time to time, but to consistently put perch in your freezer you need to know that your next hole, next lure and next drop of the jig will produce a bite.
This is why I always jig a little bit in the hole before I drop it to the bottom. I tweak the bait position, knot position or jig stroke to get it where I want it for that particular lure, and when I feel like it’s dialed in, I drop it to the bottom.
Sometimes I still strike out, but with enough practice, patience and confidence, you will not only be able to locate perch, but you’ll also be able to get them topside and into your bucket during the mid-ice phase.
About the Author: Cory Richardt is an avid ice fisherman and freelance writer from Watertown, S.D.