When someone tells a fishing story it usually starts with an animated explanation of how the brute came unbuttoned and got away. Feet and pounds are normally in the story along with jumping, clearing water, or some other erratic violent action. But the No.1 targeted fish here in Ontario next to walleye is yellow perch and it’s hard to find adjectives to embellish perch fishing stories even for Ontario anglers who are some of the best story tellers in the world. You can’t say it broke your line, or threw the hook, or got wrapped around anything, so the most common exaggeration is average size and numbers. “We must have caught over a hundred 14 inchers” is a typical yarn. Nobody got bit, sprained anything, or lost anything except the ability to count and estimate size.
We love our perch fishing here in Ontario and there is no better place on the planet if perch is your game. Real perchers would argue they are the best table fare of any fresh water fish. Perch are the fish in easy reach for the young and old alike. They are plentiful in most parts of the province and they don’t require expensive equipment to find or catch although the perch fanatics might disagree.
There are very experienced anglers that target perch and perch only. They have made an art of finding and catching bigger than average size and numbers. Some have the best equipment money can buy and have accumulated enough knowledge to write a book. They know where they are likely to be on any given week of the year and have a technique for every temperature, depth, and weather condition, all for the love of perch.
Although perch can be found almost anywhere there are some lakes that have exceptional perching where the fish grow much larger than average and are abundant even under high pressure from anglers and in some cases, commercial harvesting. Several locations on Lake Erie boast abundant large perch including areas near Crystal Beach and Port Colburn in the east and Port Rowan at Long Point further west. Lake Ontario also has several areas protected enough for the average percher including Frenchman’s Bay in the west, Presqu’ile Park near Brighton, and Bay of Quinte to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River at Kingston. Georgian Bay is now seeing a resurgence of jumbo perch particularly in Severn Sound region.
Perhaps for average size and numbers there is no better perch fishery than Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching. Although they can be found any time of the year, anglers travel from all over Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State to fish them through the ice. On any given weekend as many as 10,000 anglers hit the ice and the majority are looking for perch. In fact, perch fishing is the single largest contributor to winter tourism in the Simcoe region with an economic impact in the tens of millions dollars.
Usually, ice begins to form in mid December in sheltered areas like Cook’s Bay and from Georgina to Port Bolster behind the islands, and several areas of Lake Couchiching. By late December there is usually enough ice to walk to the hunting grounds and although it may not be safe enough for most, all caution and common sense seem to take a back seat for the chance at the first green and yellow striped treasures. The recommended safe ice thickness for walking is 4 inches of black ice but perch fanatics will venture out on much less, not recommended by more prudent individuals.
Early ice may be the best time of the year to fish perch. By the time the ice hut operators have planted the first huts the season will just be in high gear. As many as 50 (the legal limit) for perch with average sizes of 9 inches or better are the norm. Ice Hut operators on Simcoe are some of the best anywhere and if you don’t know where to start looking you might be better off to experience fishing in comfort and safety by leaving the work up to them. If you have kids and want to experience an inexpensive memorable day, call one of the operators listed here.
By the way, the weekend of Feb. 18 to 20th 2012 is family fishing weekend and no licence is required.
In this article we hope to answer three of the most important questions:
Where to find them?
How to catch them?
How to cook them?
Where to find them?
The first question, where to find them, is easier to answer during the early part of the ice season. The short answer is “they’re everywhere” but there are some traditional areas where they can always be found. Cook’s Bay in the southern most part of the lake may be the most famous perch grounds in the world. On any given weekend thousands of perch anglers head out on the ice from several access points. Within a few hundred yards from shore at any given point in the bay, perch are abundant in early season. Other popular regions of the lake include the east shore near Beaverton south to Jackson’s Point.
Larger perch or “Jumbos”, as they have come to be known, spend the summer in deeper cooler water. It’s common to find them in 30 to 60 feet of water (FOW). In the late fall they begin their transition to the shallows chasing shiners and other small baitfish. On sunny days you could find huge schools of large fish in as little as 3 FOW for short periods of the day and drift out to 10 to 30 feet later in the day. During early ice formation they spend more time shallow in water less than 25 feet deep on grass sand flats or high on humps and shoals in deeper water. They are constantly on the move and at times it seems any depth or bottom structure holds fish. This is the time they are most accessible and when they are the most aggressive. Oxygen levels are still very high and they take full advantage of the variety, volume, and concentration of food. It is common to catch 30 to 50 keepers with little effort. Fish with lengths in the 8 to 12 inch range are ideal for eating. Fish over 12 inches are common and reports of perch over 15 inches are not unheard of.
Greg Klatt and Son Mitch hold up some nice early season fish. Greg is a popular local guide as well as one of Canada’s most successful multiple species tournament winners
To Keep or not to Keep
There is always a debate amongst avid perchers whether exceptionally large perch should be kept. The argument from the catch and release side is that these particular fish carry the genetics that have made Lake Simcoe Perch so big and grow so fast. Ministry of Natural Resources biologist for Lake Simcoe, Jason Borwick believes this to be true and encourages anglers to let them go if they are healthy. The argument on the other side suggests that fish of that size (13 to 15 inches)are nearing the end of their life cycle anyway, have already had 10 to 15 years of spawning and their best days are over. There is actually no conclusive science to support either argument. In fact considering the economic impact of perch fishing on Lake Simcoe we still know little about them.
In spite of thousands of anglers targeting perch on a daily basis on Simcoe through the winter the population seems to be very healthy. In fact in 2011 reports from the message board this fall suggests this could be a banner year for both numbers and size.
The lake might not yield the number of 14 inch fish it did 30 years ago but much of the change in average size could have more to do with changes in the lakes clarity and temperature and where those large fish roam rather than the actual number of large fish available. Avid perch anglers have noticed a trend in recent years of larger fish being much deeper than in the past. Instead of fish being found in the historical depths of 10 to 25 FOW, anglers are finding large schools of big fish in 30 to 60 FOW throughout the summer months, moving back to traditional depths in the fall and into early ice. This is the time to take advantage of if you are looking for great action.
Once the winter ice is well established and anglers are out in greater number patterns can change. You can still find fish in many of the same shallower places but schools of larger fish tend to move a little deeper. Fish that remain shallower tend to be closer to structure or deep weed lines. Find the edge of deep weeds and you may hit the jackpot. The same could be true for finding depressions in the bottom where a 2 foot ridge can make all the difference, or transition areas that change from mud to gravel. Time of day and light conditions could become a factor as well. Low light conditions in early morning or end of day tend to be more optimum feeding times. An abrupt change in weather can also be a trigger. A change from cloudy to sunny conditions or vice versa can turn the bite around. When the bite gets very slow those weed lines or structures become more valuable.
Ice hut operators know best the movements of bigger fish. Tim Hales of Tim Hales Ice Huts near Beaverton starts placing huts in about 20 to 25 feet of water during the early part of the season. Tim says fish are moving constantly through this period and limits of larger fish are common to any experienced angler. Huts do not have to be moved until they stop producing larger fish and larger fish are aggressive so they are caught first. Once the oxygen levels under the ice decline and fish move deeper he moves his huts more often. Hales, like most operators, have weigh points that he has collected through the years. Some are along transition areas from gravel to sand or mud, some are where insects begin to hatch like nymphs. If he drills holes and there are signs of larvae then he knows the spot will produce. Tim says it is important to move huts over new fresh bottom. Once a hut has been in one spot for a week all the hatch might be depleted and it’s time to move. Once March comes he begins moving back to shallower water again.
Transition areas from gravel or rock to sand or mud always tend to hold fish. Once you find them mark them on your GPS if you have one. If you don’t have a GPS, Navionics has an inexpensive chart application for smart phones.
As with first ice, last ice can also be a great time to fish, particularly after the first major thaw when the ice begins to melt as it meets the shore and melting shoreline water streams into the lake. The Jumbos tend to come shallow again following the food chain, feeding on what washes into the lake. The action can become fast and furious once again during the final days of safe ice. Some ardent perch anglers believe this to be the best time of the year and many of them can be seen bridging the shore to the ice to squeeze in every last minute of hard water perching.
Once you find fish during the various phases of winter the next thing we need to know is how to catch them.
How to catch them?
Once again the season becomes a factor. During the late fall when fish are aggressive and start moving back to shallow water, bait selection isn’t critical. Almost anything that moves with a lot of flash to get attention is the fastest way to attract and catch fish. To find out what works best we went to the experts, the members of thewww.lakesimcoemessageboard.com. McGathy’s Slab grabbers were the first choice. Others that were very popular are Rapala’s Jigging Rap, Northlands Forage Minnow, spoons by HT Enterprises, and Swedish Pimples.
When ice fishing on most lakes in Ontario each angler is allowed to use (2) rods. Sometimes the action is so fast it’s difficult enough to manage one rod. The second rod is normally rigged with a hook and weight in various configurations. Small hooks with artificial rubber baits such as small tubes, minnow or crayfish imitations, live minnows, or worms are even used.