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Yellow Perch Is a Winter Treat For Ice Fishing

In years when Mascoma Lake freezes over in late December, there is a fisherman who drills holes and sets lines just off the boat ramp next to the Shaker Bridge.

He then retreats to the warmth of his car, waiting for one of the orange flags to pop up with a strike.

Last month, that gentleman was noticeably absent.

Warm winter weather has delayed the start of ice fishing season. The recommended three inches of ice has been slow in coming, especially on the larger lakes subject to the windy conditions that can hamper ice formation.

Usually, by the middle of January, small communities of bob houses are plentiful on area lakes. But so far in 2013, the few bob houses that have appeared on Mascoma seem relegated to the shoreline near the boat launch.

Nobody wants to take a chance in uncertain conditions.

Still, some anglers have been brave enough to venture onto the ice of smaller, shallower ponds that freeze over more quickly than deep lakes.

Art Rafus is an avid fly fisherman who frequents the streams and rivers of New Hampshire and Vermont in spring, summer and fall, presenting his own hand-tied flies to rising trout. In winter, he abandons the stream and his fly tackle for fishing on frozen bodies of water like French Pond in Haverill.

French Pond is the exact opposite of Mascoma Lake. At its deepest point it measures only 20 feet. The shallow flats nearer the shoreline are uniformly 10 feet in depth. French Pond is also weedy, which means that fish will still follow their summer pattern of hanging in the cover.

When Rafus found the conditions favorable on a cold day in early January, he traveled to French Pond to pursue what is probably the most sought after species by ice anglers: The yellow perch.

Perch are abundant and simple to catch, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy to find, even on a small body of water.

“You can drill lots of holes in various spots until you locate them,” Rafus says. “Or, you can use ice sonar and more than double your results.”

Ice sonar is similar to the fish finders used on boats; but instead of cruising in open water anglers must drag the device over the frozen surface of a pond to pinpoint schools of perch.

On this particular outing, Rafus brought along a fishing buddy, Matt Lyman, to help him with the labor intensive search for fish. They stayed on the ice above the weedy shallows where schools of perch congregate in the early part of the season.

“You don’t want to go deeper than 15 feet in January,” Rafus advises. “In midseason, you can search the flat basins, but stay shallow early on.”

After much patience and effort, the ice sonar finally delivered the right readings. Rafus and Lyons cranked up the ice auger and bored two holes in the ice. Instead of using traditional tip ups this go-round, Rafus opted for another technique — jigging.

A spinning outfit used for ice fishing looks just like a regular rod except that it’s only about two-feet long.

Rafus rigs light monofilament line with a jig made especially for ice fishing. He then tips the jig with a wax worm, a small grub available in most places that sell night crawlers during the summer. (Meal worms and cut bait are also effective.)

“Perch feed near the bottom,” Rafus says, “So that’s where to drop the jig. The smaller the jig the better, though almost any jig of reasonable size will work.”

When presenting a jig, the customary practice is to attract fish by keeping the lure in constant motion. But this is winter, when the fish aren’t as active.

Rafus drops the jig almost to the bottom and leaves it still. “If the fish are around, they’ll find it,” he says.

And the perch were around — the ice sonar had done its job.

Rafus immediately felt the first strike. In an hour, Rafus and Lyman caught 50 perch through the ice. They also landed a bass, a brown trout and a pickerel.

Most anglers swear that fish caught through the ice tastes better because it’s coming out of frigid water. Yellow perch are excellent table fare when rolled in corn meal and deep fried. Another recipe involves filleting the perch, parboiling the fillets and then chilling them. Dip the cold fillets in cocktail sauce and eat them like shrimp.

The daily bag limit on yellow perch is 25 per angler so once you get on them, it’s not difficult to take home enough to feed the family.

And don’t worry about over fishing — yellow perch are so plentiful in New Hampshire waters that it’s unlikely they will ever appear on the endangered species list.