In the middle and lower depths of our lakes in winter, a region of 39 degree water prevails, providing a haven for those fishes that remain active throughout this season. (A noteworthy physical property of water is that it becomes most dense at 39 degrees and sinks to the bottom. As water cools further, it becomes less dense or lighter in weight and rises to the surface. As a given mass solidifies, its density decreases even further, which is why ice floats on the surface rather than sinks.) While 39 degree water causes rapid hypothermia in humans, it is within the lower range of thermal acceptability for various species of cold-blooded organisms, including a favorite of winter anglers– the yellow perch.
The yellow perch, known to most as simply a perch, is a thick-scaled fish with noticeable vertical streaks on its sides and two separate dorsal fins. The first dorsal fin is supported by sharp-pointed spines that make the perch a challenge to handle without experiencing a painful poke to the hand. The perch also has a relatively small mouth. This limits its intake of food to aquatic invertebrates, the eggs from other fishes, and very small fish, like the fry of larger fish, dace, and smaller strains of minnows and shiners.
Perch are known to primarily use their sense of sight in their attempt to locate something to eat. Even though only a minimal amount of light is able to penetrate a substantial layer of snow and ice on the surface and dozens of feet of lake water to reach a depth with a tolerable temperature, enough illumination is present during the day to allow this predator to scour its surroundings for items to ingest. Bright, sunny days tend to provide better light for foraging, and mid morning is said by some ice fisherman to be the optimal time for catching perch.
While perch are still active in winter, their metabolism is depressed by the frigid waters. This reduces the need for large, daily intakes of food during this season. If an individual perch was successful in acquiring several meals when cruising close to the bottom during the morning, it may ignore a small piece of bait placed directly in front of it later that same afternoon.
The limited appetite of the perch in winter, coupled with its lackluster effort to consume a meal provides a challenge to those anglers that target perch. Ordinarily, when a fish nibbles on a piece of bait at the end of a hook, it applies enough force to the line to be easily detected by the individual at the other end. During winter, the gentle tugs on the bait create only subtle pressures on the line that can be easily overlooked by a novice ice fisherman.
As evening approaches, perch retreat to secluded spots along the bottom and become dormant for the night. Shortly after dawn, individuals emerge from their shelter and quickly congregate with other individuals that are close to their size. By forming a school, perch can limit their chances of being attacked by a predator, as many sets of eyes continuously scanning the surroundings provides an effective security measure. Additionally, should one individual happen to locate a collection of dormant aquatic bugs or a cluster of eggs, the others in the school can capitalize on the find.
The instinctive behavior to form a school greatly limits the distribution of perch in a lake during winter. When ice fishing for perch, it is common to go without any nibbles for an entire morning. This is likely the result of the absence of a school of perch in the immediate vicinity. After 15 to 20 minutes without any action, many experienced ice anglers quickly relocate and drop their line in another area where a school may be present. Some knowledge of the bottom is useful, as perch prefer relatively flat underwater regions that are 40 to 60 feet from the surface.
This winter has been a challenge to ice fisherman, as the lack of cold weather in November and December prevented ice from forming when it normally does immediately after Thanksgiving. Additionally, the heavy accumulation of powdery snow within a few days after the ice finally developed has prevented the cold from penetrating down and adding to the thin layer of ice on our lakes.
There is nothing better than the taste of fresh perch fillets. Venturing onto a frozen lake on a clear, calm morning is also a most rewarding experience and attempting to outwit a school of lethargic yellow perch can be a formidable outdoor challenge. However, this year it is necessary to regularly check the ice depth, as there is real danger in traveling onto a lake that does not yet have adequately thick ice for this sport here in the Adirondacks.
Photo: A hard-water angler jigs for perch on Lake George in January 2011 (Courtesy John Warren).