Third in a series on cold-weather fishing.
Perhaps one of the most consistent winter bites in the Mid-Atlantic for winter-time panfish is the ice fishing gig for huge yellow perch at Maryland's Deep Creek Lake.
Located in the extreme western panhandle of the state in Garrett County, this 3,900-acre mountaintop powerhouse is a flurry of summertime activity during the hot months. But after Labor Day most of the vacation crowd goes home and anglers have the lake for fishing pleasure. Once the lake freezes over with safe, 4 inches plus of solid ice, hardwater anglers head out on the frozen crust and seek a variety of species. Safe ice usually occurs around Christmas and can last into early March on harsh winters. By the time you read this, there may, or may not, be safe ice at DCL. Most winters will see 10 inches of hard, clear ice on the lake.
Many species can be had through the ice at Deep Creek to include bass, trout walleyes, northern pike and bluegills. But the day in, day out target would have to be the yellow perch.
At this lake, perch can average 12-to-14 inches and it is not impossible to ice a trophy perch that would exceed the two-pound mark. These big panfish offer challenging fishing with a solid effort needed for success. They are not pushovers … if you catch your limit of 10 big boys a day then you have had yourself a good outing. You have to be mobile and drill lots of hole until you locate the fish. Some days it seems easy. Most days you'll have to work at it.
There is a fair amount of DCL regulars who prefer to set stationary tip-up devices over prime areas and bait up with minnows and wait. That's OK, but for me, I'll take my chances on finding active fish by staying on the move. Winter time perch are on the move and the action can be fast and furious or like a dead pool.
Our ice jigging rods are from 24-30 inches long and have sensitive tips with some backbone to set the hook from water as deep as 35 feet from a vertical jigging position. Rods that are soft or wimpy will not drive the hooks home very well when you fish waters deeper than 18 or 20 feet.
We spool quality 6-pound monofilament on light, not ultralight, spinning reels and use No. 10 and No. 12 cross-look swivels to attach our lures. Our secret weapon, if you wish to call it that, is a 2 to 3 inch extension of the tip top that is a stainless steel wire with a loop and a orange or red bead attached at the end of the wire. This wire 'indicator' allows us to see sensitive and deepwater strikes from perch that would otherwise go undetected with just the rod tip alone. The line is threaded through the wire loop guide and then the swivel and lure are attached.
Our arsenal of lures are Rapala Jigging Minnows in sizes 3, or 5. Gold, silver, and blue seem to be the favored colors throughout much of the season. We also use a variety of spoons such as Kastmasters in 1 /12 th and 1/8 th ounce, Swedish Pimples in 1/8 th and 1/5 th ounce and Little Cleo and Blue Fox Rattle Flash Spoons in 1/16 th and 1/8 ounce. Gold, silver and bronze patterns work well throughout the entire ice season.
At rare times we will use 1/16-ounce jigheads with Panfish Assassins on them. Always, we tip our lures with either waxworms or maggots. In a pinch, we use Berkely Gulp! products for tipping. If the perch are really on a tear, we don't bother to tip, just get your lure back down where active fish are feeding. As a general rule, we use heavier lures when we are fishing 20 feet or deeper and lighter lures when shallower. But the heavier baits work just fine in shallow situations as well. On the Rapala Minnows, always thread baits on the center, treble hook. On spoons, it's a good idea to replace the treble hook with the single hook that comes with most of them. Pierce wax worms, maggots or Gulp! products on the single hook.
Traditionally, we drill six or eight holes and give each one about a 10-to-15 minute effort. If we do not get a strike or a fish then we move on to the next hole. If one of our group gets a couple of fish then we all swoop in and drill additional holes in hopes of cashing in quickly on a big, roaming school of jumbos. We will drill "satellite" holes in other directions and use portable depth finders to key in on the fish.
First, drop your baited lure so that it settles on the bottom. From a comfortable, seated position, reel up tight and work you offering from 6 to 12 inches off of the bottom as a starting point.
Almost all perch, and walleye as well, are going to be within 2 feet off the bottom but more often they will be much closer to the lake floor, sometimes only inches off the bottom. With your lure a few inches off the lake floor,. "anchor" your rod and establish the depth by holding your wrist on your knee with the hand that is holding the rod. I'm right-handed, so I simply rest my right hand on my right knee and give the lure several initial twitches with pauses of several seconds in between each twitch of the lure.
Sometimes, this initial jigging motion will draw strikes, but often more is needed.
With your hand again anchored on your knee, lift the lure about 12 inches up from the starting point and give it a series of twitches at that position. If done correctly, your spoon or minnow should now be about 14 inches off the bottom. You can also drop the lure very slowly and pause it at 6-inch increments, giving it twitches at each depth. Another good pattern is to lift the lure up quickly and hold it steady for several seconds, then snap it up again several inches higher in the water column and hold it still again.
On almost every occasion, a strike will occur after you have imparted some type of movement to your bait. A "strike" will be in the form of a movement in the wire indicator. With perch, it is usually a brisk snap downward of the wire. But sometimes the bite will be much more subtle.
You may see the wire "lift up" from its' stationary position … a sure clue that a fish has taken the bait from below, and the released tension will be telegraphed with your wire lifting up. Set the hook! At other times the wire may just slowly bend over towards the surface of the water. Again, set the hook with a sharp, upward motion that will lift your rod even with your head or higher. If you miss the strike, drop the lure right back down to the zone and the fish may very well come back for a second chance.
Look for perch to be along the rip-rap areas of Route 219, either sides of bridges, mid-lake humps or dying weed beds. McHenry Cove can be good on early ice and the Deep Creek Lake State Park region also produces lots of fish. Perch are nomadic and on the move, so todays' hot spot might be tomorrow's dud.
Access can be challenging at Deep Creek simply because much of the shoreline is developed and privately owned. If there have been recent snow events, then roadside parking around the lake can also be a tough one. It pays to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Check out fishdeepcreek.com for the latest scoop and conditions along with an excellent ice fishing forum.
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.