The Joy of Ice Fishing For Perch in Upstate New York

Four fish on and a rod next to a hole in the ice, made for ice fishing for perch.
Ice fishing for perch is a great way to spend a winter day in upstate NY.

Ice Fishing for Perch and Pike in Upstate New York

During the winter months, ice fishing in Upstate New York gives ice anglers the opportunity to pursue walleyes, pickerel, lake trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, crappies, bluegills, pumpkin seeds, and more.  Still, the two most popular species across the Lake Ontario region at this time of the year are yellow perch and northern pike.  

Catchable Species

Perch and pike reign as prince and king among anglers ice fishing in Upstate New York, and rightfully so.  For one thing, productive waters for both species lie within a short drive of most anglers.  For another, the public docks and boat launches found on the best fishing waters offer easy access for wintertime fishing enthusiasts.  Most importantly, might be the fact that yellow perch and northern pike remain active and catchable throughout the winter, unlike other species usually found in the region.

Hopefully, the following information will make you more perch-wise and pike-wise when trying your hand at ice fishing for perch and pike in Upstate New York this winter.

Best Locations for Ice Fishing

Check the Charts

For the most part, prime spots for ice fishing for perch and pike in Upstate New York are not well-guarded secrets as these locations are well known among anglers and are popular destinations winter after winter.  Even individuals who are unfamiliar with Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, or other large bodies of water can look at a chart and easily identify the big, protected bays that are the primary home of perch and pike at this time of the year.  Many inland lakes are also good bets, and when unfamiliar with winter opportunities, a phone call or an actual visit to a local bait shop is an excellent method of identifying potential waters.    

Head for the Weeds

Perch and pike thrive in large bays and shallow-water lakes because of the extensive weed cover that offers both cover and an abundance of prey.  Favorite locations for ice fishing for perch and pike include the outside weed-edge areas of scattered weed growth, man-made channels through the weed-beds, and other openings in the weeds.  Flats adjacent to the weeds also hold both species.  Other good bets for pike are shoreline drop-offs, nearby reef edges, and drop-offs outside the weeds.

Winter Weather Patterns

During the early-ice period, perch and pike will be found throughout weedy bays and along weedy shorelines.  As winter progresses, though, colder water temperatures, decreased light penetration, reduced oxygen level, and angling pressure result in the majority of fish moving to deeper water.  For the best mid-winter results, anglers should concentrate their efforts on deep-water weed-edges, deep-water flats, deep-water points, and other deep-water structures– particularly near the outer portions of bays.  

As late winter approaches, yellow perch and northern pike will again migrate to the shallower, weedy areas where the fish feed aggressively and put themselves in position for the approaching spawn that will take place shortly after ice-out.

Setting Up Your Ice Fishing Rigs for Pike and Perch

Traditionally, ice anglers set up in a given area for the day.  After strategically drilling 10 or so holes, the angler sets his or her five minnow-baited tip-ups for northern pike, and then jigs for perch in the remaining holes.  In addition to the possibility of attracting northern pike, tip-ups also attract activity from yellow perch that trip the flag and run very little line off the spool.  This occurrence is called a “perch flag” and is an excellent way to locate a roaming school of perch.  Such a flag calls for the angler to remove the tip-up and do some jigging in that hole until the action slows, and the tip-up is then reset.  

Also, just the opposite scenario occurs for anglers who are setting up their ice fishing lures for perch.  When the perch action suddenly ceases, the cause may be that a northern pike has moved into the area.  In such situations, anglers should consider placing a minnow-baited tip-up, or utilizing their ice fishing rigs for pike in that hole or a nearby one.

Active Angling

Just as open-water anglers rely on mobility to increase their fish catches, so, too should ice anglers be active in their ventures.  The degree of mobility, though, is directly related to the presence of other anglers on the ice. 

By selecting areas with few anglers present or by fishing at low-pressure times, anglers afford themselves the opportunity to stay on the move.  Active angling calls for fishers to routinely auger holes throughout the day, to move inactive tip-ups to new locations, and to go from hole to hole with the jigging rod.  Such activity can give clues to the best areas, structures, depths, bait size, type of lure, presentation style (subtle to aggressive) and more for that particular day. 

The key to mobility on the ice is to not just move blindly, but to move with a sense of purpose.  Certainly the traditional, wait-the-fish-out method catches winter perch and pike because both species are roamers by nature.  Still, purposeful mobility will produce better catches, day in and day out. 

Feeding Behaviors

Because yellow perch and northern pike are sight feeders, they do not feed at night.  Instead, they are most active in the morning and late afternoon hours.  These feeding patterns are especially true for larger fish.  Unfortunately for anglers hoping to enjoy ice fishing for perch and pike, these times are also the coldest ones of the day.  More so than their summer counterparts, however, winter perch and pike are fairly active throughout the day. 

Yellow perch are a bottom-oriented species, and the most active fish are typically a few feet off the bottom, so ice fishing lures for perch should be presented within three feet of the bottom while ice fishing for perch and pike. Perch of a similar size tend to school together, but it is worth noting that a fresh grub at jig’s end often entices the larger perch in the school to bite.

Northern pike may suspend, but they typically hold near the bottom.  Since a pike’s eyes are positioned so that he feeds best by attacking prey above him, anglers should set their ice fishing lures for perch and pike three or so feet off the bottom.  

Selective Harvest

Studies, as well as personal observations, have shown that ice fishing for perch and pike can negatively impact the fish population in a given area.  This is especially true during early-ice and late-ice, times when yellow perch and northern pike congregate in bays and along near-shore structures and are susceptible to overfishing. 

As a result, ice anglers are encouraged to practice some catch-and-release or to implement selective harvest, a practice where smaller fish are kept for eating and larger ones are released.  Releasing large perch and pike is a sound practice especially during late-ice, a time when egg-laden females are extremely vulnerable to angling pressure. 

Original Article By Mike Seymour

About The Author

Captain Mike Seymour is a licensed Coast Guard and NYS guide who has guided extensively on the St. Lawrence River, Black Lake and within western Alaska.  He is former president of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association, and is an active writer for many publications.  In addition to fishing the St. Lawrence River, he is actively fishing Lake Ontario, the Adirondacks, and other waters of the state. 

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