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Paul Nelson column for Jan. 22: Anglers switch to panfish when walleyes slow down

The mid-January thaw helped compact the snow on area lakes, which should make it easier for anglers to get around on the ice, at least until more snow falls.

Walleye fishing typically slows down in the middle of winter and then picks up again as spring approaches, when walleyes begin to stage up for their spring spawning run.

Fish metabolism slows during the winter, so fish don't have the same urgency to feed in cold water as they do in warm water.

Large predators usually target larger prey, so one meal can last them for several days or longer before they need to feed again.

Panfish eat smaller prey, with microscopic prey often making up a significant portion of their diet. Eating tiny prey forces panfish to feed longer and more often than gamefish. It would be like a person trying to live on sunflower seeds. They have to keep eating constantly without ever getting full.

When walleye fishing starts to slow down in mid January, many anglers switch from walleyes to panfish to get more action. Perch, crappies, sunfish and even eelpout and whitefish all have their ice fishing fans in the winter.

Perch like to feed on flats, whether they are feeding in deep water or in shallow water.

Shallow flats are often covered with a short weed called chara or sand grass. Chara is brittle to the touch and collects in mats on the bottom of the lake.

Chara acts almost like Velcro, collecting floating debris out of the water, which provides food and cover for small invertebrates, minnows and crayfish.

The schools of perch roam the chara flats and search for food. Anglers may find perch on the shallow flats one day, but the nomadic nature of the shallow perch keeps them moving. Fishing for shallow perch often means starting from scratch nearly every day.

When perch are on the deep flats, it usually means they are feeding on insects, including mayflies, blood worms and dragonfly larvae. Perch are often easier to pattern in deep water and may stay in a productive area for long periods of time.

Anglers have to pattern the perch and find what type of habitat they are using, which usually means figuring out what they are eating. Once a pattern is established, anglers can look for similar areas to find more perch.

It is rare for all the perch in the lake to be doing the same thing at the same time, but there is usually a dominant pattern in each lake. Perch will take advantage of whatever prey is most abundant in the lake at that time.

Perch need to have ample food sources at all times of the year to grow to jumbo size. Small lakes may not have everything perch need, at least part of the year, which usually means stunted perch that are more susceptible to parasites.

Most of the best jumbo perch lakes are large lakes, with a good variety of feeding opportunities for perch at all times of the year. Lkes in the Bemidji area with good perch populations are Bemidji, Blackduck, Cass, Leech, Plantagenet and Winnibigoshish.

Presentations for perch include smaller versions of walleye lures, including jigging spoons and jigging minnows. Jigging presentations usually work best when perch are actively feeding on minnows.

Smaller presentations can also work well for perch, especially when the perch are feeding on insects.

When aggressive jigging presentations don't work for perch, finesse presentations like smaller jigs tipped with wax worms or eurolarvae often work better. Most anglers use one or two wax worms at a time or several eurolarvae on a small jig for perch. Small plastics are another option, with some baits imitating insects or small minnow fry.

Sonar is a big asset when searching for schools of perch. Anglers can drill a series of holes and walk from hole to hole with sonar looking for fish. Once anglers find an area with fish, they can have several rods pre-rigged with different baits, so they can quickly switch presentations to see what works best.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be e-mailed at