This is the second of a two-part series on the ice fishing season
From areas around Buffalo's Small Boat Harbor to shallower embayments at Lake Simcoe in Ontario, the ice is getting nice.
Following an early fall of above-average temperatures, recent weeks of steady cold has heated up activity for anxious ice anglers.
"Last year they got on harbor ice Dec. 23," said Jerry Olejniczak at Penrod's Bait & Tackle in South Buffalo. "This year they can get out a week earlier."
Olejniczak said walkers checked out ice surfaces Wednesday and headed out with gear Thursday.
Since the arrival of water-filtering invasive mussel species in virtually all area waters, clarity has become a concern for ice fishermen as well as warm-weather anglers.
Clarity and lure presentations became the central focus when Wil Wegman, extension services technician with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), gave a PowerPoint talk at St. Catharines, Ont,. recently.
Wegman, a winning ice-fishing contestant who devotes much of his ice-angling time on Simcoe Lake near his home at Brantford, keyed on four of the most popular fish anglers target when working Simcoe ice: Lake trout, whitefish, northern pike and yellow perch.
Simcoe, with mid-lake depths to 145 feet, supports a solid presence of lakers for ice anglers. "The OMNR stocks 50,000 lake trout each year, and natural reproduction has been increasing," Wegman noted.
Lakers can be found in some shallower areas early in the season, but as the season progresses the better option is to head to deeper areas. "Try to get over hard bottoms," he suggests, adding, "run two lines to attract trout. One line should have a spoon and the other a tube jig."
The rod with a spoon should be worked to draw trout into the area and the jig moved to make them strike.
Lake trout tend to hold close to bottom, but feeding fish may show up high in the water column.
"When reeling up, trout can chase a bait 30 feet up or more when they're active," he said.
Anglers have a creel limit of two lake trout per day at Simcoe.
Whitefish stocking into Simcoe goes to 140,000 each year, but daily limits remain at two fish; whitefish season runs Jan. 1 to March 15 during the ice fishing season.
Like lake trout, whitefish tend to hold close to bottom but will move up and hit well off bottom when feeding.
"They are most active early mornings and just before dark," Wegman said. "They tend to start the ice season in shallow areas and move out to deeper water as the season progresses."
Whitefish have small mouths and feed on smaller baits. Perch anglers often hook whitefish with smaller jigs and baits. Wegman highly recommends the smaller Marmooska jigs for times when the bite drops off.
Area anglers typically smoke whitefish, but in many areas this fish has become an oven delicacy, either baked whole or filleted with skin side down.
As with lakers and with whitefish, Wegman highly recommends drilling at least two holes and working a spoon attractor in one and a jig and minnow (live, dead, or artificial) in the other hole.
Anglers get onto newly-formed shore ice as soon as possible to prospect for pike. Northerns generally hold around shoreline weed edges during first-ice periods. But as winter-season feeding progresses, pike move well past the 10- to 20-foot depths they haunted earlier in the year to deeper structures, Wegman noted.
About half of Wegman's talk and illustration time was given to finding, hooking up, and working lines to best catch perch.
His perch pursuits have paid off. Last year, he finished first in the Perch Attack competition. A look at the gear he keeps in hand tells much about his successes.
Most ice jiggers carry along three or four small ice-fishing rods and reels tied up with the proper line weight and terminal tackle. Wegman carries a specially designed bag, smaller than a hand-held golf bag, which holds 15 rods and reels neatly arranged for immediate use.
"Safety" serves as the foremost word for going onto ice, "light" is the leading consideration for catching perch through the ice.
Invasive exotic-mussel filtration has increased clarity in Simcoe's waters. That clarity has increased weed growth at greater depths all around the lake.
"Now perch are feeding more on scuds [freshwater shrimp] that live in these weeds," Wegman explained.
For decades, ice anglers at Simcoe have hauled up hundreds of perch each year with no other bait than a bucket of minnows. Now, finesse-minded jiggers work micro-small jigs, flies and spoon rigs to catch some of the larger perch.
Wegman offered five tips for anglers in search of good perch-sizes and numbers. In reverse order, he recommended these approaches:
(1) Be prepared. Dress warmly and in a way that you can easily reach lines and all gear items. Make sure the auger blade is sharp, gear is where you can get at it, and, prime in this general tip heading "let the fish dictate the fishing."
Too often, anglers in search of perch and other fish resort to methods that worked last week or year and miss out on the good fishing going on today and now.
(2) Stay mobile. Boaters can move around to get over good perch grounds. Anglers have applied similar approaches on Simcoe ice. Wegman credits the drop in registered ice huts, once more than 5,000 registered each year, to anglers moving with portable huts/tents rather than to reduced fishing pressure.
(3) Use that same two-hole approach suggested for lakers, pike, and whitefish. A smaller spoon on one line and a baited jig on the other can be deadly.
The long-popular J- or Jack-Hook (a little spoon soldered onto a small, usually long-shank hook) works well when perch feed and hit heavily. With practice, an angler can shake a fish off this hook and put the lure back in the water in one, swift motion.
But these usually work better when fish feed furiously and move off bottom, he told a questioner.
(4) Finesse all you can. Go with light rods. Wegman likes the use of "spring bobbers," short, fine-wire extensions placed on the rod tip to detect exceptionally light bites. Line weight should be at or below two-pound test.
(5) Don't over jig. That is, go with lighter, less aggressive jigging movements and watch closely for the slightest change in line movement -- vertically or sideways.
"Now that perch are feeding more on scuds, they just stay in place and inhale these critters (freshwater shrimp) and you may not see anything more than a slight move in the line," he said.
As for catches, he suggests catch-and-release when you can. Bigger perch, measuring well over 12 inches, are generally females carrying thousands of eggs soon to be spawned. "Instead, try to keep the 9- to 11-inchers for eating," he stressed.
Wegman's tips work well on all ice outings, not just at Simcoe Lake. For more details on ice safety and fish outings, go to wilwegman.com.