From mid-winter through ice-out, Devils Lake guide Jason Feldner “hunts” perch with a system he says can’t be beat. Relying on highly detailed GPS mapping and electronics, signs from Mother Nature and a ‘three-call’ system, Feldner quickly locates and ices big perch, day-in-day-out.
“When it comes to finding fish, you’ve gotta key in on slight 1-foot depth contours—especially for perch. In mid- and late-winter, a good place to start is that 8- to 15-foot range,” he says.
Like birds following a migration path, perch slowly travel specific depth contours from mid-winter through late ice to reach their spring spawning areas. “If you can’t get right on those one-foot contours and follow the perch, you’re gonna have a tough time staying on the action.”
But get to the contour right, sink an underwater camera, and you’ll spy a stockyard of yellow, green and black bars moving amidst swarms of shrimp. “That’s what I try to put my clients on. You look down there and it’s like hordes of Green Bay fans moving out of the stadium and into the streets. They’re hungry and looking for a fight.”
To find just the right contours, Feldner utilizes the new Version 4 LakeMaster Nebraska/Dakotas map card in a Humminbird 597ci HD ice unit. “Fishing Devils without a LakeMaster card is like shooting pool with a rope,” says Feldner.
“Once I find the contour the perch are following, I simply choose the chart menu in my sonar and highlight that key depth contour in green. Now, with a glance, I know where the money areas are and simply drill my holes throughout that green shaded area on the graph.”
The latest LakeMaster digital chart is set for the lake’s current water level, 1,455 feet elevation. Thus, areas around the lake that have recently been flooded show up that way on the map. But this body of water is notorious for its fluctuations, and with the Humminbird/LakeMaster combo’s Water Level Offset feature, Feldner can adjust the chart to reestablish its accuracy by pressing a button.
Likewise GPS mapping is a must as the lake is a mine field of roadbeds, timber fields and other things that can tear up the lower units of the unsuspecting or overzealous. And in the winter, it’s crucial to set a route and be able to follow it back into shore if the wind picks up and anglers face whiteout conditions.
Following the waterfowl analogy, once he’s located schools of jumbos, Feldner likes to use a ‘three-call’ system to lure the nomadic fish into biting.
The new Version 4 Nebraska/Dakotas LakeMaster digital GPS map card allows anglers to quickly pinpoint key areas.
Using Depth Highlight, it’s easy to label target areas quickly and efficiently.
The Highball Call
|Feldner’s Graph Tweaks
Feldner says he abandoned traditional flashers long ago when he saw how much he could learn ice fishing with a graph. “I learned a lot about jigging cadences by watching a graph on the ice. And with that knowledge I’ve been able to catch a lot more fish.”
Never without his Humminbird 597ci HD close by, he runs the machine in split view, with a quarter of the screen dedicated to full view and three-quarters of the screen in 2x zoom mode. “Although I can run the 597 in up to 6x zoom mode, I find 2x is best for me. Sometimes, though, such as when walleyes are bellied into the bottom, I’ll go up to 4 or 6x.”
He recommends setting the chart speed to maximum and running the noise filter as low as possible to increase sensitivity.
If fish are shallow he sets the maximum depth only one foot deeper than the actual water depth to get the most screen real estate. If fish are deeper—more than 15 feet—then he’ll set maximum depth range two feet deeper.
Feldner starts his three-call system with the perch equivalent of a hail or highball call—a bait with a big profile and sizeable rattle chamber, such as a a ¼-ounce Lindy Darter or Rattl’ N Flyer, to produce sounds that alert perch to the presence of food.
“They’re inquisitive,” says Feldner. “They’ll swim over from a pretty good distance to investigate what’s making the racket—and if it’s something they can eat.”
Because Devils Lake perch typically relate to the bottom, Feldner likes to position his bait two to three feet above so the fish can see it from a distance. He’ll give it a pump followed by a
shimmy and shake to produce flash and noise before letting it sit, keeping his eyes glued to the screen of his Humminbird 597 graph.
“I try to appeal to all their senses. You’ve got the rattle, the flash, and then I tip it with a minnow head—just the head, no guts—to produce some scent,” says Feldner.
In terms of gear, Feldner tells his clients to leave their 1- and 2-pound panfish finesse rigs at home. “These fish are head throbbers and are routinely in that 13- to 15-inch range, sometimes bigger. They’re linebackers that’ll beat up puny rigs. Plus, you stand a good chance at hooking a good-size walleye. In fact, one client recently iced an 11 pounder fishing this perch system.”
Feldner likes 4-pound PowerPro braid tied to a small barrel swivel and 4- to 6-feet of Lindy Ice Line.
“The swivel keeps the line from twisting and eliminates having to use fancy line-to-leader knots. Hard to beat the strength of tying direct to metal,” he says.
To speed up the process of swapping out different sizes and colors, Felder likes Quick Snaps, rather than having to re-tie. “If I get a couple lookers at the ¼-ounce but no takers, I’ll quickly downsize in the same spoon to a 1/8-ounce,”he says.
And if they won’t commit to the 1/8-ounce – or if the fish slow down – Feldner abandons the highball and moves to the “C’mon In Call.”
With the perch now inside Feldner’s transducer cone, he’ll switch out the minnow head and rattle spoon, opting for a Frostee, with two red larvae on each of the treble points in traditional “Medusa” fashion.
He then slows his jigging, finding out just how far the fish will come up for the bait. “Often times I’m just barely moving that rodtip and then letting it sit still. Then I’ll slowly lift it through the water column until I find out at what depth they want to feed,” he explains.
Feldner finds that the ‘C’mon Call’ is typically good for a solid number of fish. Still, at some point the perch will turn neutral, at which time he pulls out his feeding call.
Further downsizing to Lindy Toads and Ice Jigs presents the bait as if it were larvae emerging from the mud, gently tapping the bottom to produce clouds of silt which draw in feeding perch.
“I work the rodtip really slow, gently lifting the bait until they quit following it. If they shoot back to bottom, I drop the bait and repeat lifting it a few feet.”
Quoting ice pioneer Dave Genz, Feldner says, “Cadence is everything.”
Yet, he says color can make a difference, too. “My experience is that on bright days, bright spoons and jigheads work best—on dark days, dark colors.”
One Last Tip
Feldner says that all too often ice anglers leave fish to find fish. “Once you find perch, stay there. Tweak your system and figure out what they want. That’s thebasis of my three-call system. Never leave fish to find fish.”
He recommends keeping a deadstick with a minnow in another hole off to the side, which will keep perch in the area until you figure out what presentation works best. Plus, you increase your chance at some of the awesome multi-species action Devils Lake has to offer—a gorgeous walleye, brawny pike or even a roaming white bass.
Northeast North Dakota District Fisheries Supervisor Randy Hiltner says
Devils Lake perch numbers are the highest they’ve been in the past 10 years.
Best Late-Ice Action
Although Feldner is well versed in how to use the latest in fishing electronics technology to his advantage, he still keeps an eye on Mother Nature to help him optimize his time on the ice.
“As snow geese start to migrate north in mid- to late-March throughout the Dakotas, that’s when we’re getting closest to ice-out, which definitely relates to what perch are doing. The water’s warmer, there’s run-off and perch are finally arriving in the shallower, sandy shorelines to spawn.”
Feldner says this can be prime time to catch the biggest fish in the system, and adds that he’ll fish as long as it’s safe. “Not only are the perch massive,” he says, “the walleyes are moving to the edges of the trees and into shallower water, which means you can have epic multi-species days!”
Northeast North Dakota District Fisheries Supervisor Randy Hiltner says all surveys point to the perch and pike populations being the largest and healthiest they’ve been in 10 years. Likewise, walleye numbers are high, with excellent hatches the past five years. “All three major gamefish species are high in terms of density.”
Thinking about a late-ice destination? No matter how you cut it, it’s hard to beat Devils Lake.