By Bill Mitzel
Soon, it'll be rotten out there. Not rancid like spoiled produce, but soft and dark nonetheless. I'm talking about the ice. It's thick and resolute now, but it won't last forever, actually, scarcely longer than a few weeks, less in some areas. Fortunately, though, ice fishing's swan song is a cheery tune; one fraught with foraging fish and wonderful weather. And lead vocals are belted out by my favorites, jumbo perch.
Now I really hate being a killjoy, especially in an upbeat discussion about perching, but it's necessary to first underscore ice safety. Folks do some pretty stupid stuff at winter's end. They drive through open water along the shore to reach the ice, only to find the watery rift too wide to cross at day's end. They're stranded. Others wheel and deal across decomposing ice, paying little or no heed to significant and enlarging fissures, ones spacious enough to capture a tire, too, maybe the whole enchilada. When March rolls around, I park the rig at the landing and walk, ice permitting, perhaps four-wheel or sled.
Basically, I treat last ice like first ice, but with an understanding that aged ice can't be "read" like a fresh coat. Rather than developing, late ice is deteriorating, decaying on the inside as it absorbs surface melt. Visibly speaking, the blacker it appears the weaker it is, too. As reassurance, I wear a life jacket, carry hand picks, and fish with a partner, despite the fact that I trust my ability to decipher ice conditions. Ramifications are too grave to rely on speculation alone.
Enough preaching, though; let's move onto the where's, how's, and what's.
Basically, the month of March can be cleaved into two parts: Early March and Late March. During Early March -- the first week or two -- perch remain engaged in midwinter patterns. They're not exceedingly aggressive, either, preferring smaller baits and subtler jigging motions. They reside on offshore humps with sharp breaks, as well as deep flats. But all that's about to change.
About the time you tire of fishing deep and offshore, the perch wear out their welcome, too. So they move up. At first, this push shoreward predicates on a change in dinner plans. Shoreline zones begin to bustle with aquatic life, chiefly baitfish and insects. Later, as the ice recedes, perch stay in tight, but their concentration then divides between eating and mating. Perch set their sights on specific areas during the migration, too.
Cattail-lined shorelines and deeper sloughs are a couple of the chosen areas. Banks of emergent cattails mark the whereabouts of soft substrates that are home to edibles. It's usual for anglers to ignore said areas, too, because muck is seldom linked to perch. But during late ice, perch will wallow in the mud if they're well fed. Stands of bulrushes have similar powers; they too teem with foodstuffs. Typically, though, rushes sprout over sand and gravel areas, which are preferred by perch anyway.
Deeper rushes are superior too, so search for stems stabbing skyward in 4 to 6 feet of water.
While discussing vegetation, one can't neglect cabbage beds, either. Even fields of withered cabbage attract perch. Aquatic insects still writhe in mats of browned salad. Deeper beds -- 10 to 18 feet -- tend to harbor more perch as well. Humps, bars, and points that adjoin spawning areas also hold fish. Generally, I look for such structures in depths of 6 to 20 feet that feature level feeding areas on top and distinct breaks along their flanks.
A change in behavior accompanies this passage to shoreline tracts, too. Perch become cranky, aggressive, and take these frustrations out on the forage base. They not only consume in volumes, but choose bigger targets as well. Jigging a spoon is an "in your face" approach. The lure falls fast, reaching the strike zone right now. In a hot hole, you'll actually see -- via a Vexilar -- red missiles rising off the bottom to intercept the lure. But if nothing attacks on the initial drop, I let the spoon smack the bottom, then raise it a foot, and commence jigging with steady 6-inch motions. In these times where something's going somewhere though, I won't burn more than a couple minutes in a cool hole.
Oppositely, if the action's blistering, I rig a secondary setline for bruisers-only. Suspended by a float, this supporting apparatus features a jig or plain hook and a walleye-sized fathead or rainbow chub. It's not unusual for the chunkiest perch of the day to come on the setline, either.
Late mornings still yield the best bite. That's a universal certainty, no matter the season or region. And during March, warming sunshine seems to really rouse spirits. It's tough to think about work on a balmy and sunlit March day. During late ice, schools of perch can be quite voluminous too. So even if you tap into a swarm of puny fish, don't fret, because legitimate jumbos might be only 40 or 50 paces away.
And put a governor on that bucket, because there's no shame in releasing jumbo perch.