1) Accept Climate Change! It’s taken me awhile to accept that in my neck-of-the-woods (Lake Simcoe 40 minutes north of Toronto ON) late season ice is nothing like it used to be and there are no signs this will change anytime soon. It seems like just a few short years ago that I would be writing about that glorious perch bite that really doesn’t begin until early April – long after all the huts had to be off and lake trout and whitefish season was closed. That bite often lasted until mid-April and would consistently see perch moving in shallow right next to adjacent spawning sites. Days of 100 or more jumbos were not uncommon and we’d take great pride in breaking the magic two pound barrier time and again. Unfortunately – those magical days and that typical late ice period has changed dramatically – but the perch fishing can still be absolutely incredible if you adapt to the changing conditions and accept climate change!
2) Late Ice Comes Early! That’s the new normal and we’d better get used to it. Today on March 8 for instance we have been in the midst of what surely appears to be the last ice period- for the past week or more. Heavy rains, mid-teen temperatures (Celsius), open rivers, thinner main lake ice and open water nearshore are all telltale signs that break up might not be too far off. Planning your time accordingly to capitalize on what little late ice activity you may have, is the only way to still enjoy the top notch perch and black crappie fishing available. For some this could involve booking the odd vacation day but for others (myself included) it means I don’t waste my wknd time doing ‘other non- fishing stuff’ - and almost as good … I take advantage of longer daylight hours and boot up to the lake for even an hour or two of magical dusk perch action, or later into the night for an extended cornucopia of crappie goodness.
3) Fast Paced Mobility=Key to Biggest and Most Perch! There might be a time and place to wait them out early in the season, but late ice certainly isn’t one of them. Those who sit and wait after a couple of good fish get them all excited, are often the ones who suffer thru an array of dinks or long periods of inactivity or even more frustrating- plenty of good fish below the hole- but none willing to cooperate! Late ice after late ice period over the years, this lesson is re-enforced and this was definitely the case just a couple nights ago on Lake Simcoe. My son began the 5pm bite with a couple of really nice 12 inchers but for the next 1 ½ hours he was transfixed by all the nice perch below his hole and stubbornly stayed put. He tried a variety of baits and down sized to some of the smallest HT Tungsten marmooska’s going but only managed to then coax the smaller fish. Admittedly just before we left, he switched back to the larger marmooska tipped with a micro craw and he caught another big jumbo – but that was it. Meanwhile I had about a dozen holes pre drilled within a 30 yard radius in water 24-31 feet deep. Parts had soft bottoms and sparse bottom weed while others had a hard rocky substrate. There were decent fish in almost every single hole – but only 1-3 good biters… and the rest were dinks. My big marmooska and soft micro goby plastic were just the ticket for a couple of fish from each hole and with so little time till dark (when the perch typically shut down for the night) I certainly didn’t have the time nor patience to wait them out.
4) Carry the Proper Safety Equipment: Floater suits are not dry suits and if you ever do go in you’ll still feel the icy cold water … but they do keep you buoyant and help you get out quicker. I always tell my seminar guests that I look at my HT retractable ice pics like I do my seat belt in my truck. You don’t want to HAVE to rely on either to save your life but both can and will if needed. Never leave shore without them. HT’s new on-ice throw bags come in a compact waterproof bag with high quality rope that won’t retain water. These are easily stored in your sled and again are an item you hope you’ll never have to use to save a friend or loved one … but should you need to, that rope is exactly what you should use instead of approaching a victim within their danger zone. My recommendation is not only ‘to be the one who owns and carries the throw bag’ … but practice using it too. Toss it at various distances to your fishing buddy- aka victim and have it try and go overtop his/her right shoulder so that he or she can wrap the rope around their chest area under the arm pits and back out front so bot hands can grab the main line again. Here’s hoping you never have to use this easy to master on ice safety drill in a real life situation.
5) Stay Safe- Even the Biggest Perch isn’t Worth the Risk: Late ice- regardless of when it comes where you live, deserves a higher level of scrutiny than say mid –winter when conditions are more stable. For a lake the size of Simcoe (740 sq km) many of the places I’d love to access for big perch are simply not safe enough to warrant the risk. Other places may have decent ice further from shore, but will require planks to get out there. Keep in mind that much of the clear blue ice (which is strongest) has now deteriorated into weaker white ice (1/2 the strength) and hopefully not yet the extremely week honeycombed or candled ice… stay away from the latter with a ten foot pole – or plank. Test ice frequently as you go. Usually late ice means nothing but walking or cross sledding for me, but that’s ok because perch are typically not too far from shore now anyway. Always let someone know exactly where you are accessing and when you’ll be back. Carry your cell phone in a waterproof container and slide your HT headlamp on your cap before you leave shore if you’re fishing at dusk. Stay clear of pressure cracks, springs, and any open water this late in the season and always remember …when in doubt stay off!
Wil Wegman is an award winning outdoor writer who was inducted into the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame in February 2017. He has been on the HT Pro staff since the mid 1980’s and his HT Ice Fishing Seminars see him travel all over Southern and Central Ontario every winter. Wil was a member of Team Canada at the World Ice Fishing Championships and has won the Perch Attack and the Perchin For MS event on Lake Simcoe.