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No longer lowly: Happiness is a bucket of jumbo perch

by Mike McFeely

As a born and bred Minnesotan, I was properly dismissive of the yellow perch as a game fish through the first 30+ years of my existence. Perch were nothing more than a nuisance, worthless little bait-stealers at which more expletives were directed than possibly any other fish besides hammer-handle northern pike.

Much of the disdain directed at perch was based on their size in most Minnesota lakes. Perch were short and scrawny, rarely growing much longer than 6 inches or heavier than a few ounces. This held true on the Alexandria chain of lakes on which I grew up, where perch often had the added bonus of being speckled with tiny black parasites.

I also seem to recall my relatives, who often ice-fished on giant Lake Mille Lacs, throwing all the perch they caught on the ice outside their fish houses for the crows to eat. They were fishing for walleyes, you see, and perch (no matter if they were 8- or 10- or 12-inches long) were mere annoyances and unworthy of respect.

There were hints anglers from other states like North Dakota and Wisconsin purposely fished for perch, and an exotic NoDak body of water named Devils Lake was said to produce a strain of them that grew to jumbo proportions. But with Minnesota lakes filled with walleyes, bass, crappie and everything else a young boy could chase with a Zebco 202, why would anybody actually try to catch perch? Only anglers who didn't have many other options would do that, right?

I remained blissfully ignorant of perch fishing, and treated it with a healthy dose of Minnesota condescension, until the late 1990s. By this time, I was married to the lovely Michelle (maiden name Hamner), whose parents owned a farm outside Beardsley, Minn. On trips from our home in Moorhead to the farm, I would pull off Minnesota Highway 28 in Browns Valley to visit with the proprietor of Ben's Bait, a talkative gentleman named Mike Falkingham.

I'd known Mike for years, having made his acquaintance through a mutual friend named Rob Nigg. I graduated high school in Alexandria, went to college in Moorhead and played town-team baseball in tiny Carlos (near Alex) with Rob. His family had roots in Browns Valley and we liked to fish rocky, wind-swept Lake Traverse nearby. We also liked to drink copious amounts of beer, which was a consistent theme from high school to college to town-team ball to fishing. But I digress ...

One October day en route to the Hamner spread, I stopped at Ben's Bait to chat with Falkingham. I asked him how hunting season was progressing and he said, "Truthfully, I've been spending more time perch fishing up at Waubay than anything else." 

Perch fishing? With all the pheasants and ducks around here, you're perch fishing?

"Let me show you," said he, walking from behind the counter to a chest freezer near the front of the store.

Falkingham lifted the freezer lid, reached inside and pulled out two frozen-stiff perch that could've passed for footballs if they didn't have stripes, fins and tails. They were 15 inches long if they were an inch and were round as saucers. Each easily weighed better than 2 pounds. They were grotesque, really, with bloated bodies far out of proportion to their tiny heads and tails. They looked like the puffy, blood-filled wood ticks you have to pick off your dog's ears if you miss the little parasites for a couple of days.

I'd never seen anything like them. "My God," I said. "They look abnormal, like they've been exposed to nuclear waste or something." 

"We've been catching dozens of them in Waubay. We tie up to flooded trees and jig over the side with our ice-fishing rods. The other day we were fishing next to an old house that was underwater," Falkingham said.

Waubay Lake was a shallow duck slough in northeast South Dakota whose waters rose more than 20 feet when the wet cycle began in 1993 and really accelerated in 1997. The water overtook roads, rock piles, woods, shelter belts and farmsteads. In those very fertile early years, Waubay was a fish-growing factory, whether it was perch, walleyes, crappies or pike. The perch were reproducing like mad and growing as fast as biologically possible. It was wild and woolly. 

One glance at those jumbo perch at the Browns Valley bait shop and I was hooked. My little S-10 pickup was making the 2-hour drive down I-29 fairly regularly that winter to lakes like Waubay, Cattail and Kettle plus a bunch of unnamed flooded sloughs. Some days were epic, some were flops (big perch can be as persnickety as any fish), but all held the promise of fat perch.

And, funny, the same characteristics that made perch such a nuisance in Minnesota lakes -- their numbers and willingness to bite at any time -- made them attractive in South Dakota lakes. It helped, of course, that South Dakota perch were 9- or 10- or 12-inches. It helped, too, that a fillet from an 11-inch perch is second to none in a frying pan.

Years have passed and I have developed relationships at Devils Lake with people like guide Jeff Katzer, so I have experienced the boom in jumbo perch fishing the past couple of years on that tremendous fishery. North Dakota Game and Fish has done a wonderful job of managing dozens of flooded sloughs in Richland, Ransom, Sargent, Dickey, Barnes and other counties for perch fishing. Some believe quality perch fishing in North Dakota is the best it's ever been.

Sunday was a day to try a North Dakota body of water I'd never fished before, having been tipped by a friend about a remote lake that was home to big perch. Five hours of fishing produced a dozen keepers, including a trio of true jumbos in the 13- to 14-inch range. There were dozens of small perch returned down the hole. I was one of perhaps six anglers on the lake. A nearby fisherman and his son had 20 keepers in their 5-gallon bucket, including more than 10 jumbos. It was sunny, windy, chilly and peaceful. It was a wonderful day.

As a born and bred (and still resident) Minnesotan, I have seen the error of my ways. Big crappies caught along the edges of cabbage beds in the summer are still my favorite fish (it's a childhood thing) and I love catching me some walleyes. Dandy bluegills take a backseat to no fish. But nice perch taken through the ice have vaulted their way onto my favorites list. Might even be right behind crappies, if I was to be honest. There is something about the "whump" (instead of a "tick-tick") when a fat perch hits your jigging spoon that still gets me excited.

I even have a 15-inch, 2-pound perch taken from Devils Lake stuffed and hanging on my office wall.

So, yes, I fish perch on purpose now. And it all came about, if you think about it, because I married a woman whose parents owned a farm near Beardsley. Maybe I should've gotten married sooner. Then I wouldn't have wasted three decades looking down my nose at perch.

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