The tip of my pole wiggled ever so slightly. Then again.
It was a telltale sign that a puny perch was working my lure below. But before I could wisp the jig away, I hooked a striped predator that barely out-measured my bait.
As I yanked the fish out of the hole, it was intercepted by my fishing partner for the day — Clam pro staffer Dave Genz.
Genz, of course, is a modern ice fishing pioneer. He invented the Fish Trap “flip-style” portable house, revolutionized the way ice fishermen use sonar and developed dozens of popular products and techniques ice fishermen regularly use today.
“Aren’t you going to drop a line down?” I asked Genz as he fished for my hook, which seemed to have been swallowed down to the perch’s tail.
“I’ve caught plenty of fish,” Genz replied. “I get a kick out of teaching guys, too.”
And I wasn’t about to argue. Who wouldn’t want to receive some on-ice advice from Mr. Ice Fishing?
Genz and I were canvasing northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake in search of jumbo perch on a beautiful early March morning. We had set up on a huge flat in extremely shallow water and drilled holes over a small bowl in the middle of the flat.
“A little depression is always a good spot when you’re ice fishing,” Genz explained.
With a depth of about five feet and nearly three feet of ice, we only had a couple feet of water to work with. Genz’s Vexilar Fish Scout Underwater Camera System helped us gauge the perch activity in the skinny water below.
The camera revealed perch of all sizes swimming through the weeds. Although big perch tend to school with other big perch, and smalls with other smalls, those schools will migrate through many of the same areas. This often leads to a mixed catch for ice fishermen. Sorting through dozens of petite perch to find jumbos can be a tedious exercise.
Over the course of the day, Genz taught me several shrewd techniques to evade the small perch before they even bite. With his strategies, we were able to specifically target jumbos as they swam among their smaller counterparts.
1. Be Prepared
Big perch come in runs. You can usually count on catching the majority of the day’s best fish in a handful of short windows.
“When the big ones are there, you have to have your line in the water to catch them,” Genz said.
A prepared ice fisherman capitalizes on those hot bites. A few extra seconds here or there can make a huge difference when a school of jumbos swims through.
Many of your best runs will start the instant you drop your lure down a fresh hole. Make sure the hole is skimmed out and your electronics are in place before you start fishing. Then get ready for action. The biggest perch below are often the first to strike.
“I think a lot of fish got big because they ate the most,” Genz said. “When they see that bait dropping down into the water, they rush up there and beat the other fish to it.”
Being prepared is especially crucial in the midday hours when fish are more fickle.
“We all become better ice anglers when the sun is at the top of the trees in the evening, but in the daytime hours, that’s when those little things make a difference,” Genz said. “At high noon, only maybe 10 percent of the fish will be biters. Those 10 percent of the fish are scattered across the whole school, and you’re fishing a very small area.”
When the bite is hot, make sure to get your line up and down as quickly as you can. You want to keep the school of jumbos beneath you as long as possible.
2. Keep Your Bait Fresh
Another element of preparation is keeping your bait fresh. If you are using minnows, euro larvae or maggots, make sure to replace them from time to time. Jumbo perch are much more likely to hit an oozing hook full of fresh maggots than some frozen, old remains.
“If you catch a fish on a crappie minnow, you wouldn’t throw that minnow back down. You’re in the bucket for a nice, fresh minnow,” Genz said. “Or when you go to the next hole, if your minnow is dead, you’ll put a new minnow on. But if your maggots are frozen to the hook, you’ll throw that frozen hook down there.
“If you want to catch those daytime fish, you have to do the little things so that when a fish comes up, he bites it. He doesn’t just turn and swim away.”
3. Jig off the Bottom
Many ice fishermen jig less than a foot off the bottom. Genz says this is a mistake.
“So many times, the fish are two or three feet off the bottom, or if there is an aggressive fish on the bottom, he’ll see your bait up high and come up after it,” Genz said. “If you’re fishing six inches off the bottom and the fish is two feet off the bottom, he’s going to swim by your bait and not even know it’s there.”
Genz pounds his lure on the bottom to muddle up the sediment and attract curious perch. Then he brings the lure up two or three feet to work more of the water column. By jigging higher, perch are able to see the lure from further away. Bigger perch, which tend to be more aggressive predators, will often come in to investigate the new disturbance.
4. Sort on Camera
An underwater camera can be an ice fisherman’s best friend when dealing with mixed schools of perch. Using the Fish Scout camera, Genz and I were able to see perch before they hit my lure. If a smaller fish approached, I’d simply pull the lure away before the perch could grab it.
Genz advocates using the camera in down-view mode. In shallow water, he puts the camera down the same hole he’s fishing from and rests it just below the ice.
Even when sight fishing is possible, Genz prefers using a camera because of the extra peripheral vision it gives you.
“When you look down a hole in shallow water, you’re looking down that stove pipe down to the bottom,” Genz said. “The camera allows you to see quite a bit more.”
5. Size Up With Your Sonar
If you’re fishing too deep to use an underwater camera, you can use your sonar to selectively fish in much the same way.
Genz uses his Vexilar FLX-28 to size up the fish below. Using the new advanced color system, he watches for white marks, which indicate bigger objects.
“It’s easier to pick out white than it is to distinguish red from orange,” Genz said. “You can start seeing the size of the fish because of how bright the white gets.”
After you get the hang of it, you can start dodging bites from smaller fish to keep your bait in the water until nicer perch swim in.
6. Move On
One mistake Genz said many ice fishermen make is not moving to a new hole when they’re only catching small perch.
“I think that’s a hard thing for fishermen to do,” he said. “With the electronics, they see fish down there, and because the fish are there, they’re not going to move.”
Genz uses what he calls the “Five-Minute Rule.” If he hasn’t caught a nice-sized perch in the first five minutes at a hole, he moves on.
“Sometimes, I don’t last that long,” Genz said. “When I don’t last that long, it’s generally because I haven’t seen a fish yet. I’m still in the original search mode.”
7. Revisit Hot Holes
Eventually all runs come to an end, but remember which holes you had your best runs on and revisit them throughout the day. There’s a reason a school of big perch was congregated beneath that hole, and another school of jumbos will almost assuredly visit the same spot later.
“There are tunnels or pathways through the weeds that these fish follow,” Genz said. “They’ll come to a certain area where they’ll stop.”
The perch might be attracted to an opening in the weeds, a good feeding area or some structure. Regardless of what it is that appealed to them, another school of perch will likely swim through before long.
8. Change Things Up
If the bite gets slow but you’re marking fish or seeing them on your camera, try changing lures to see if another style or color will be more enticing to the perch below.
“Fish don’t have a big memory,” Genz said. “It’s a new bait coming down to them.”
He likes to have several rods tied up with different lures so he can quickly switch between options to find what’s working best.
9. Fish With a Bigger Lure
It might seem obvious to upsize your offering when you’re being harassed by tiny perch, but sometimes it’s hard to change anything when you’re consistently catching fish.
“We tend to fish with small baits in the wintertime,” Genz said. “If you’re catching too many small perch and a few big ones, you will catch more big perch if you upsize your bait.”
We started the day using jigs, but after catching several small perch in a row, Genz had seen enough.
“Experience taught me to use bigger baits,” he said. “You have to keep your bait down there longer.”
We switched to the fluttering Clam Blade Spoon and immediately eliminated bites from the smallest predators below.
10. Ditch the Bait
Perch often need the incentive of maggots, wax worms or minnow heads to commit, but if you can’t keep smaller fish off your hook, Genz recommends jigging with a bare hook.
“I’ve used the Blade Spoon or even the Swedish Pimple and put no bait on it,” Genz said. “That keeps the smaller fish from biting. They’ll come up and look at it, but if you wiggle it a little bit, they’re intimidated. They move away from it. Then, all of a sudden, a big one comes roaring in there and eats it.”
11. Match the Hatch
It’s an old fishing adage for a reason. Fish are often more likely to be enticed by lures that look similar to what they’re used to feeding on.
In our case, Genz believed the bigger perch in the area were preying on small bluegills. He had me try a 1.8-gram Clam Psycho Shad, which is a swim bait known for its ability to call in fish.
“It actually works better in a little deeper water because it has more time to work like it’s supposed to,” Genz said. “When we tested baits before we started marketing this Psycho Shad, we noticed that, of all the lures we tried, it had the most distinct wobble when we let it fall. So, you raise it up and let it fall. It definitely attracts fish.”
With the lure’s ability to draw in bigger fish without using any bait, we saw instant results. The first perch I pulled up on the Psycho Shad was a 12½-inch hunchback.
12. Don’t Compromise on Keepers
It’s important to decide what size perch you want to keep before you hit the ice. If you set your baseline keeper size at 9½ inches, break off a stick at that length.
“A ruler would work, but it’s too much work to measure each fish on a ruler,” Genz said.
Then make sure you don’t keep any perch shorter than the stick. Without measuring, your eyes can start to play tricks on you.
“When you catch eight or 10 perch that are 8 inches long, and then you catch one that’s 8½, you go, ‘Oh, that’s a nice one,’ and you throw it in the pale.”
At the end of the day, you could end up with a pale full of 8½-inchers. By measuring and throwing those medium-sized perch back, you can stay under your limit, fish a little longer and find the bigger perch you’re truly after.
The Psycho Shad was the hot bait that morning. The larger lure spooked smaller perch while calling in big, aggressive fish from a distance. The hard-hitting jumbos didn’t need any live bait to be enticed into a bite, which also helped keep smaller perch from striking. With limited depth to work with, short rips just below the ice seemed to be most effective.
By using Genz’s advice to phase out the tiny perch, we caught almost exclusively keeper-size fish with a handful of giants in the 1-pound class. With these 12 techniques, you can quickly change an aggravating mixed bite into a bucket full of jumbos, too.