Last ice, the old-timers say, is about as good as ice fishing gets, with the possible exception of first ice. At any rate, the tail end of the ice fishing season is great for perch fishing. While last ice can occur in February in the southern part of the state, it is more likely to happen late in March, on more northern waters, and it may even occur in April, in Northwest Michigan and the U.P.
The big difference between fishing for perch late in the winter and earlier is that the fish are getting ready to spawn under that last ice and are schooled up much more than in January or February. If you venture out in January, you will find perch, of course, but they are apt to be well scattered and moving around. This means that you will catch one now and then but, very often, there are no fish down there at all. The fish move around a lot, and you will often have periods of a few minutes to half an hour when you can’t get a bite. In March, however, the fish are in rather large schools and, if you get over one, you are apt to get all the action you want, and it is likely to be continuous.
There are many ways to fool a late-winter perch and, on a given outing, you might use all of them. If the fish are in big schools and rather aggressive, a small jigging spoon will probably produce more fish than anything else. My personal favorite is a Swedish Pimple about an inch and a half long, in a pearl white finish. With the head half of a small minnow impaled on the little treble hook, this is a dynamite lure. I like to suspend it for beginners, with the rod propped over a bucket, and look for the rod tip to bob a couple of times as a perch taps it. When that happens, it is good to get that rod in hand and be prepared to set the hook as the perch nails the jig. Even when the perch seem to like to hit the jig when it moves, it is usually a good idea to let it rest between jigs, let the fish come in, and get a good look at it.
If you can see the fish down there (and sometimes you can, if the water is shallow and clear and the inside of the shanty is dark) or if you are using an underwater video camera, you will note that the fish often approach the lure and tap it a couple of times before opening their mouth and eating it. The tap gives you the warning that eating is about to commence, and get ready to set the hook.
Fishing with the jig will do some sorting for you most days. The larger fish seem to hit the lure best. While the smaller perch will tap the lure, they will often only do that without ever taking the jig.
When the fish are less aggressive, a tactic with more finesse is appropriate. Try the traditional perch rig. This is the rig often sold in tackle stores as a “crappie rig” with two hooks on snells and a big sinker on the bottom. It is tied on at a swivel on top of a stout piece of mono leader material. You can make these up yourself, using those little nylon line-leader connectors and snelled hooks and your homemade rigs are likely to be less crude than the tackle-store models. Choose a fairly small gold hook with a long shank (making it easier to bait and remove from the fish) and make sure the snell material is stout so the hooks will stay out from the main line.
While many anglers like to use two hooks, especially when trying two baits (wigglers and minnows), my usual preference is to use just one hook and bait it with a lively minnow. The two-hook rig uses a lot of bait, and it appears to have a little less finesse. This rig is best fished under a very light rod, propped up or laid over a bucket, or, better yet, a rod with a spring bobber. With that rig, wait for the spring bobber to bend down and then set the hook.
When the fish are slow to bite, try a bobber rig for the maximum finesse. Use the smallest, lightest bobber that will float, even if it is half submerged. If the water is over eight feet deep, and it usually will be, use a slip bobber. A regular slip bobber is hard to work with when temperatures are below freezing, but you can rig a clip-on bobber to slip. Check the depth with a plumb weight and grab the line a few inches above where you want the bobber. Put an overhand knot in the line there but don’t pull it tight. Place a short length of heavy mono, perhaps three-quarters of an inch long, in the knot and then pull it tight. Place the bobber on the line but don’t allow the clip to go into the hole provided. This will make that a slip bobber with lots of play so it won’t freeze up readily. You can move the bobber stop by pulling out the little piece of monofilament and pulling on both ends of the line – the knot will pop out.
With a little practice, you can sense the size of the perch by watching the bobber. A small perch will usually produce a lot of bobber action, and then the float will finally go down fairly hard. A big perch, on the other hand, will usually cause the bobber to sink gradually, and then it will appear to be suspended, below the water. The bite will be very much like that of a nice walleye.
Perch fishing is great fun, all winter, and the lowly yellow-bellies are the number one target of ice anglers all over Michigan. The very best part of the fishing day is when the sun goes down, and the anglers head for home, looking forward to a fine meal of pan-fried perch fillets.