The day we long dreaded—the day of the living deadstick—has arrived. Not to say deadstick guys are zombies, but it’s probably the closest we’ll come.
Saginaw Bay Charter Captain Brandon Stanton with a Saginaw Bay jumbo. Stanton is an instructor in the Mark Martin Ice Fishing Vacation School.
A deadstick is an ice rod in a rod holder clipped to a bucket, secured to the tub of an ice shelter, or screwed to the wall of an icehouse. And, like a zombie, it will come alive with startling regularity.
According to some of the best ice anglers out there the guy with the deadstick catches most of the ﬁsh these days. Famous walleye pro and intuitive ice angler, Mark Martin, tutors ice ﬁshermen on various bodies of water all winter (Mark Martin’s Ice Fishing Vacation Schools), where he and his staff have reﬁned deadstick perchfection over the past decade.
“My pro staff is proliﬁc about going after perch,” Martin says. “Over time, they’ve discovered that using a deadstick and just tapping it once in a while at least doubles your catch. Where three rods are legal, they use one jigging rod and two deadsticks sporting jigs tipped with wax worms or just a piece of plastic. I don’t know why, but if you just tap that deadstick once in a while, it will catch far more perch than the jigging sticks. Beaucoup piles of perch.”
The new Clam Lock Single Rod Holder and Clam Lock Two Position Rod Hold-er (pictured) can both be secured to the tub of a portable ice shelter, the wall of a fish house, or any secure surface providing versatile deadstick deployment.
On small lakes? Great Lakes? Everywhere? “Gogebic, Saginaw Bay, Muskegon Lake, Erie—doesn’t matter,” Martin said. “My staff and I are convinced—dead-sticks outﬁsh jigs everywhere we go. No doubt, Great Lakes perch are different than the ones we ﬁnd in attached drowned river mouths and inland lakes. Lake Michigan anglers often refer to Great Lakes perch as white bellies and inland perch as yellow bellies. The cry goes out, ‘the white bellies are in’ and people ﬁrst begin intercepting them 60 feet down in late fall with jigging spoons or spreaders rigged with a couple Aberdeens tipped with minnows. They start in boats then walk out on thin ice past the pier heads, contacting perch that are moving into these connected lakes.”
In the past, perch were following shad. “Shad are less proliﬁc now in the north,” Martin said. “Now perch come in and feed on what shad they can ﬁnd and transist quickly to bugs. We use ice ﬂies or spoons with single hook tipped with maggots, mayﬂy nymphs, wax worms or Gulp most of the winter. Single-hook spoons wobble a little more. Lake Michigan isn’t exactly sterile, but these drowned river-mouth lakes have much more invertebrate forage.”
Find spottail shiners or trout perch and it’s game on for white bellies. “If you’re catching them along with the perch, you’ve got the area wired,” Martin said. “That’s my key on the big water. Houghton Lake, Gogebic—on any lake not connected to the Great Lakes, we ﬁnd perch by following transitions at the edge of mud flats where invertebrates are thickest. The typical depths are 19 to 36 feet. Shallower mud ﬂats in 8 to 12 feet are used primarily when the weeds are green. If the weeds are dead, perch locate on those deeper ﬂats. A camera tells the story quickest. If the weeds are green, you’ve found yourself a little restaurant. Brown, dying weeds? Move to those deeper ﬂats, but everywhere perch will hit a small teardrop tipped with waxworms or wigglers.”
Mark Martin with a sow-bellied perch from Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron, taken while tutoring ice fishermen in his famous Ice Fishing School.
In drowned rivermouth lakes, white bellies follow the same program if they stick around. “Finding yellow bellies in deep water?” Martin asks rhetorically.
“They’re leaving home. If you catch yellow bellies in deep water, it’s a clear indication the weeds are dying. Lake Michigan perch—the white bellies—never use shallow water. They coexist in the drowned river mouth lakes when the weeds are dying. Otherwise, you have a stark distinction—yellow bellies are shallow and white bellies are deep. In really clear, pristine water lakes, the weeds seem to die really quick. Yellow bellies wander the shorelines more, but deeper—down 25 to 30 feet. If the transition from hard-to-bottom is at 30 feet and it extends right out into the middle of the lake, perch will be there. All these forage-related factors have every-thing to do with deadsticking right.”
Deadstick Yellow, Deadstick White
“If you have bait on the jig and just tap that deadstick every few minutes, they will come,” Martin said. “It’s weird. The best program is a single hook spoon with bait. Current makes it wobble when the angler leaves it alone, and when it wobbles it moves the bait. Even a size #3 Jigging Rapala with no bait—put a single, light-wire, #8 Aberdeen on it and it moves more. It catches more current. Last year on the dead rod, using a #3 Rapala with no bait, I caught a few walleyes and countless perch.”
Martin jigs with a Rapala, the smallest Northland Buckshot Rattlespoon, or a VMC Tingler. “We use the single hook that comes packaged with a Swedish-Pimple,” Martin said. “That hook is heavier and holds heavier ﬁsh. But the deadsticks catch more perch for us.”
Perhaps anglers that ﬁnd the oppo-site to be true are not hanging baits high enough. Martin’s crew suspends baits way off bottom—far enough to make other ﬁshermen scratch their heads. “People fail to believe their ﬁsh ﬁnders,” Martin said. “White bellies suspend up to 15 feet off bottom in 40 to 50 feet of water on spottail shiners and trout perch. Lots of perch suspend in these systems and most people fail to take advantage of it. You want perch to see it from a distance. If the bait is 15 feet off bottom, that’s where we set those deadsticks—but we always want it well off bottom. About 4 to 5 feet up would be the norm. If perch are on bottom, they’ll come up for it. Even when they’re on bottom, rooting around for insects, they’ll come up 4 feet or more for these deadstick presentations. In shallower areas, we keep it 2 feet off bottom. Some of my pro staffers don’t even jig anymore. They just kick the deadsticks every few minutes. I can’t do that. I have to jig with at least one rod, but I never jig with two rods anymore.”
“When people start talking about needing cameras to catch perch, you know it’s a deadstick bite,” says television host Jason Mitchell.
Deadsticks used by Martin’s staffers are deployed in rod holders from various companies. “The ones that clip onto buckets or tents are most popular, I guess,” Martin said. “I like the coated wire things (Today’s Tackle Rod Rocker 2). My staff either uses a split shot and Aberdeen hook, a horizontal jig like the Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee, or a spoon with a single hook. Deadsticks beat jigging every single day, everywhere we went for the past four or ﬁve years. We’ve taken it to a different level now. We ﬁgured out a new way to jig and it’s not to jig at all. Giving perch a decision, between the jigging and the deadstick, is the idea, but we think there’s too much for perch to process when you’re jigging in cold water. We can’t hold it still enough long enough most days.”
From all corners of the ice-ﬁshing world we keep hearing from pros and guides that deadsticking is more essential each successive year for every species. Some demand that moving a rod out of a holder tips perch off and they spit the hook. Others say deadsticking requires a rod holder or two, and Clam’s new Clam-Lock series of rod holders get the job done. ClamLock single, double, and even quadruple holders can be critical just to have a place to keep rods out of harm’s way when both hands are needed elsewhere. But as tactical gear, ClamLocks are secure. No rods ﬂying down the hole. Versatile, too. These nifty units can be secured to hub assemblies, ﬁsh-house walls, shelter tubs, buckets, or any other solid surface.
The Elliott Brothers Walleye-Perca ice rod is designed for shallow walleyes and deep perch. It’s perfect for hunting roving packs of giant perch in deep basins. The Syncork Grip, designed by Gregg Thorne, is 30% lighter and 30% more sensitive, and far more durable than cork.
The 2-Position Horizontal unit can be manipulated into any position required to reach a hole. The Single Position version—also adjustable—is constructed with steel and heavy-duty polypropylene. The 2-Position Vertical unit has the same features, and the 4-Position is basically for holding rods not being used. The base is the same for all so they can be switched out as needed.
I’m too mobile to sit in a shelter for long, however, so I always have a small Lakco Bucket Rod Holder clipped onto the lip of the bucket I sit on using a Frabill Strato Bucket Seat, which leaves a slice of the bucket’s lip open for a holder.
Rod designer and television fishing celebrity Jason Mitchell, who created one of the finest deadstick rods for perch, agrees forage options determine the approach. “When perch are chasing minnows their bodies have a bigger, rounder shape with bigger heads,” Mitchell said. “When they feed heavily on bugs and scuds, like they do in the Dakotas, you get ﬁsh with big bodies but smaller heads and they are much more likely to be caught on dead-sticks. When people start talking about needing cameras to catch perch, you know it’s a deadstick bite. The need for dead-sticks really becomes obvious for me on smaller lakes, where the only real chance you have is to lay something there and let it sit. These ﬁsh make jigging anglers look really bad. They don’t lift up to chase, they don’t change posture when they come in, and they stare at baits a lot.”
Mitchell’s key to deadsticking suc-cess is a slow, deliberate hookset. “I don’t believe in standard rod holders,” he said. “The rod has to have a light tip, of course, but with a heavy backbone. It’s like pulling spinners and crawlers in the summer. That slow increase in tension results in more hookups. When perch feel a slow, steady, increase in tension, it makes them clamp down on it harder. Swinging up on them like a baseball bat makes them let go.”
For mobile anglers, the friction created by deadsticking becomes palpable. “Deadsticks are like an anchor,” Mitchell says. “You can’t move. You need a couple things going for you to be successful when deadsticking. You have to know where you need to be and you need to know it’s going to be one of those hair-pulling bites. Some-times you dance a lure and perch never accelerate toward it. That’s a dead give-away. Perch that feed on big 4-inch crayﬁsh and 3-inch shiners are like Mike Tyson compared to the perch we ﬁnd in smaller inland lakes.”
On those smaller lakes, Mitchell rarely sees the need to suspend deadstick baits up high. “On Gogebic, perch key on invertebrates,” he said. “They might switch to shiners more of the year, but invertebrates comprise most of the forage for inland-lake perch in winter. Weather is another factor. After fronts. Deadsticks shine after severe cold fronts. But when you don’t have com-petition from other anglers, the opposite happens. If perch have been left alone, they’re going to chase and respond to a jigged spoon more often.”
Another Lake Gogebic “jumbie” taken on a PK Lures Predator Flash Spoon tipped with wax worms. The flicker blade on the Predator sends flash out in all directions, drawing perch in.
Mitchell deadsticks with waxworms or minnows most of the time. “Wigglers (mayﬂy nymphs) work great where you can get them,” he said. “A lot of people use a plain hook and a split shot, but I take a small spoon, remove the treble, and replace it with a long-shank Aberdeen. With minnows, the hook goes in slightly ahead of the dorsal, along the side, and comes out toward the head. You want the barb to come out right behind the gill. A long-shank hook is important because it swings toward a biting perch. The minnow can’t go anywhere. You don’t want it shooting around or even able to swim. The lack of movement is key. Fish that respond to deadsticks respond best to a bait that’s not struggling, not swimming around, just sitting there.”
The day we long dreaded—the day of the living deadstick—has arrived. Not to say deadstick guys are zombies, but it’s probably the closest we’ll come. “I hate it,” Martin laughed. “But watching my staff catch perch when I can’t is a lot worse.”
One guy is jigging with two rods. A second guy just lets one rod lay across a bucket. And he’s catching all the perch. “What the heck are you doing?” asks the ﬁrst guy.
“Nothing,” says the second guy.
The Perchfect Living Deadstick
Some pros say rod holders give perch a chance to spit the hook. “When you run multiple lines, you get too much clutter on the sonar screen,” said Jason Mitchell, designer of the Meatstick Deadstick ice rod. “So I jig with little Northland Forage Minnows or Acme Kastmasters, which don’t generate a strong return signal. I can see what’s happening with the deadstick bait, which is right next to bottom most of the time. I like to set the rod on a bucket or balance it on a balance-beam-style rod holder so the tip is over the top of the hole about a foot.
You’re sitting right there, it makes you more attentive, and you don’t want to give the ﬁsh negative cues by pulling the bait too hard to get it out of a holder.”