By Ken Perrotte
Phtooom! The ice covering Vermont’s Lake Champlain was booming earlier this month as temperatures warmed well above freezing and a rainy frontal system blew through. The loud rumbles sometimes caused a slight vibration in my boots as I sat in a folding chair tucked against a crew cab pickup that dutifully served as a windbreak and shelter against driving rain. The snow, several inches deep atop the 22-inch-thick ice a day earlier, was rapidly melting. Gusty winds propelled tiny rivers of water all along the slushy surface.
Most people probably thought we were nuts. Maybe we were...
“There’s a huge pressure crack, just north of the Sandbar Bridge,” my brother Dana told me as we steadily cranked in tasty yellow perch. Pressure cracks, ruptures in the ice’s integrated surface are nothing to mess with. They sometimes leave a long line of broken ice, frozen upward in jagged upheaval, creating a dangerous, formidable wall. Or they can leave a gap of open water, something potentially perilous to those venturing forth on vehicles ranging from snowmobiles to nearly 7,000-pound trucks.
The things we do for fish, especially those delicious yellow perch, the source of many happy fish fries.
I hadn’t made an ice pilgrimage for five years. Schedules and weather always interfered with plans. I almost scrapped this year’s trip too, thanks to the disastrous economy and the more than $100 it now takes to fill my truck’s fuel tank. Then, I reverse rationalized it. With no end to spiking prices of anything in sight, I figured I’d better jump on the road and go before we’re all stuck at home planting victory gardens, washing and saving aluminum foil and mothballing our vehicles.
My experiences on the road added credence to my concerns. Diesel fuel on the way up (a Friday) was $4.23 a gallon. On a Monday return, it was already up to $4.69. Oh well. At least I returned with a cooler filled with dressed and filleted yellow perch.
Tell people you’re heading to “the islands” in the winter and most assume you’re heading to the tropics – warm sand, cold drinks stuff. Then there are the Lake Champlain Islands, beautiful islands large and small clustered at the lake’s northern end a few miles from the Canadian border. This part of the lake is also called the Inland Sea or the Northeast Arm.
There, plump, pre-spawn yellow perch stage, sometimes stage in huge schools along the firm bottom of this glacial lake. Perch can be had in shallow water, too, sometimes just 10-15 feet deep; the bigger, prized yellow bellies seem to like it a little deeper.
Years ago, we typically fished for perch out of homebuilt wooden shanties, which were usually comfortable if not always productive. Technology led to more mobile shelters that could be easily transported and set up to allow a sort of “running and gunning” fishing style.
Our first full day ranged from 10-23 degrees. Dana’s Otter XT Pro X-Over Lodge flip-over-style thermal shelter was indispensable, offering an easy way to fish while staying toasty warm with a small propane heater going.
While I warmly lounged, content to catch an occasional perch, younger brother was constantly venturing outside, driving hundreds of yards, drilling new holes and checking the fish situation with his Humminbird Ice 55 flasher, a sonar system that quickly displays the situation throughout the water column near the hole. He periodically poked his head in to say, “I found ‘em,” prompting us to fold down the shelter and tow it to the next hotspot.
Perch are highly mobile. A school can be directly beneath you for a while and then vanish. When you find them actively feeding, multiple anglers rapidly dropping baits and catching fish can prompt a frenzied bite. We, along with friends Pete Johnson and Lee Perry, easily caught more than 100 fish an hour on a couple occasions.
The perch hugged the bottom. Our baits included bibits, basically heavy jigs with the hook mostly encased in painted lead. Just the hook tips extend, the barbs often crimped down to allow for frenzy-fast fishing. White, with a little sparkle, worked best, likely because it mimicked the bountiful alewives perch either spit up as they came through the ice or had sticking out of their mouths along with our lures.
We also fished with small spoons made by Al’s Goldfish Lures. My favorites were the 3/16-ounce Goldfish and the ¼-ounce Helgy ice jigs. I tipped the J hooks on the nose with a perch eye. The lures got to the bottom surprisingly fast in the 55-feet of water. The Goldfish is a casting spoon, but it's also a effective for jigging. For the ice jigs, the lure body is turned around with the single hook off the nose. You can add an optional red tab but I used it as is, except for the perch eye addition.
Dana and I took turns using a new St. Croix 28-inch medium-light rod. It had a sensitive tip for detecting bites along with enough backbone for a reliable, fast hookset. He also uses a customized Ugly Stik GX2 ice fishing rod that is retrofitted with large guides across the entire rod. These are less susceptible to ice forming. When fishing in deep water, he also swaps out the small spinning reels accompanying most ice combos and uses a full-size reel with a fast gear ratio on.
“In 50-60 feet of water, the bigger reel cuts in half the number of reel turns you need to get that fish to the surface,” he said. “Plus, perch bites are often light – just a tap – keeping your hand on the reel handle and starting to crank as soon as you lift the rod to set the hook helps ensure the fish stays on, especially when you’re fishing with monofilament line that can stretch a lot at those depths."
Filling buckets with fish can make you forget cold weather. Vermont allows commercials sales of perch, so most of Dana’s fish went to a local seafood market. A big bucketful of mine made it to the kitchen sink. That, as they say, is when the real work began. Know what? It was worth every bite.
e: A version of this article also appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper on March 15, 2022.