As temperatures drop, ice fisherman across the country are gearing up to get on the ice. They know some of the best fishing takes place during the first part of the season. Here on the Southeast side of Michigan’s lower peninsula, first ice means targeting the backwaters of Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. It is in these out of the way areas where some of the best perch fishing takes place as soon as the ice becomes safe enough to walk out on.
As the winds of November and December blow in the cold artic air, perch migrate in to feed on schools of baitfish. By the time the ice forms, the perch have moved into the back canals, creeks and marinas along the shorelines. It is during the first ice period these fish tend to be on the bigger side and are at their most aggressive when feeding. Later in the season they become less active or move out to deeper late season haunts.
On Lake St. Clair ice fisherman will lower their equipment onto the ice and traverse break walls to get out on the many canals found on the east side of the lake. They walk into marinas in search of perch, any shallow water area is fair game during first ice. What makes LSC perch fishing unique isn’t the quality of the fishing, although very good, but two very original methods used to put the fish on the ice.
Lots of anglers are familiar with spearing through the ice. Many go into dark fish houses and drop spears on northern pike. In Michigan and Wisconsin spearing sturgeon is also allowed. On Lake St. Clair though, spearing perch is allowed, and as far as I know, this is the only lake in the United States where it is allowed.
The second unique method employed to catch perch, like other areas across the country involves a rod, reel and a spoon. Now when I say spoon, your first thoughts might go to a small spoon presentation like Clam’s Blade or Speed Spoons, tipped with maggots. The spoons used on Lake St. Clair have been called many names over the years, but all have certain characteristics in common. They are wide at the top, they narrow towards the bottom, have a sharp bend before a barbless hook, dressed with a plastic bead is soldered onto the blank.
The uniquely shaped spoon will dart off and flair to the side of the hole on the drop, covering a wider circle below. When a perch hits the spoon, there isn’t any time to play with the drag. It is literally a race to get the fish out of the hole. Anglers on LSC use a stiffer rod, either a light or medium light rig, and the reels are spooled up with 6 lb test mono, remember the hook is barbless, so keeping tension on the perch is the key to success. Once out of the hole you don’t have to handle the fish to get it unhooked, simply drop the rod tip down, let the perch hit the ice, and it will wiggle off the hook by itself.
South of the Detroit River, the anglers chasing perch will find them in creeks, boat clubs and marinas. Anglers in Michigan are allowed to use three rods each, all year long. Because of this, I might take as many as six to 7 rods out with me on any given perch trip.
Whether sitting in my Fish Trap or kneeling on the ice in front of my Vexilar, I want to cover as much of the ice in front of me as I possibly can. One type of presentation will be the active one, which means jigging a bait. My other approach will be less active, either watching a bobber or using a dead stick.
One or two rods will be rigged with spoons, one will be more along the lines of a traditional spoon with a treble hook like Clam’s Blade Spoon. I can either be aggressive when jigging, or just give it a little jiggle now and then. On another rod, I will have a Speed Spoon with its short gold chain going to the hook. Either presentation can be tipped with plastics, maggots, whole minnow or just the head.
My other jigging rods will be rigged with either horizontal or vertical jigs. In most cases I prefer using a tungsten jig, and last year, had the most success with Clam’s Dingle drop jig. That short chain with a colored bead presentation helped to get the near sighted perch to bite when other jigs failed. Sometimes perch can be fussy when feeding, so some rods will be rigged with a #14 jig. Go as small as you can, when conditions allow. Many backwater spots don’t allow you to go too small though due to currents flowing through them. If the water is moving at a good pace, drop a #12 or #10 jig down the hole. Keeping your line vertical is critical when telegraphing your jigging action on the rod down to the bait.
My second tactic is more passive, utilizing either the dead stick or bobber rigged approach. They both have a sinker and hook on the line, but I let the conditions tell me which one to use. When dead sticking, I can either use a very soft glass rod, or a rod equipped with a spring bobber, both types will let you see what the rod is telling you about the perch’s activity below. I prefer to use a dead stick outdoors, bobbers freeze and lines stick to the ice shards…etc.
When conditions dictate that I need to be inside my shack, then I prefer to use a slip bobber rig on my other rods. Once I set the thread to the right depth, it goes back to the same place in the water column. This is key because of fishable space in the shanty and I don’t have move my Vexilar to a different hole every time I put the bait back down the hole. Do it once, and forget about it.
The perch fishing in SE Michigan can be incredible, and although the approaches are a little different, both Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie have much to offer. The perch are bigger, more aggressive, and you can use any of the techniques to get the job done. Just remember to target these sometimes overlooked backwater areas at first ice for the best perch fishing of the ice season.