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Pilot Outdoors

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Biologists predict best winter perch fishing still ahead

SPIRIT LAKE----It's the talk of anglers statewide. Spirit Lake perch fishing is on fire. Following an incredible three full months of block buster action, it appears as if the excitement isn't over yet. As spring thaw approaches, angler success is actually on the rise. If the bite were to get any hotter, say locals, it's likely the ice itself would ignite into flame.

Although that last statement may be a bit of a stretch, it does offer a hint as to how good the fishing has been. Here are the facts. Spirit Lake anglers are currently enjoying the most extraordinary perch fishing success since biologists began keeping records in 1957. During a single, 45 day period [January 1 to Feb 15] anglers harvested more than 114,000 yellow perch and released an additional 300,000 back into the lake.

"It's been a phenomenal winter and we've not had a previous ice season that even compares," says DNR District Fisheries Biologist, Mike Hawkins. "I think the real story here is the incredible number of fish being caught. Daily 'car counts' have approached 500 vehicles and there have been more than 17,500 angler trips unto the ice this winter which easily makes it the highest ice fishing effort ever recorded."

Direct interviews with nearly two thousand of those anglers have shown that people are catching an average of 22 perch per trip, and are taking 7 of those fish home. Perch become "angler acceptable" at around seven inches and most fish being harvested measure from about eight inches to 11 inches in length. Biologists note that current fish densities coupled with high success rates are a perfect recipe for creating "happy campers." Angling devotee, Jay Cole is one of those campers.

"I didn't start fishing until early February, but I've really been doing well since then," said Cole. "I usually get on the ice around 9:30 or ten o'clock and fish 'till noon. I keep the good ones. I don't take home a limit every single day, but I usually end up with at least ten or fifteen fish to clean."

"This is the first winter I've had time to do this much fishing," added Cole. "It's worked out well. I love catching perch and they taste great. It's just great to be out here on the lake."

Retired police lieutenant, Terry Dodson agrees.

"I usually get out on the lake at least one or two days per week," reports Dodson. "You have to do some sorting to get the ones you want, but there are plenty of fish willing to bite. Yesterday, I caught 37 and kept 18. That's a pretty good average, and I'm getting enough fish to eat."

Dodson was just dropping his first lure down the hole at around 10 last Wednesday morning. At first nothing, but soon the first group of foraging perch moved through. Things lit up and within fifteen minutes, Dodson had four fresh "keepers" flopping on the clean ice.

But Spirit Lake anglers aren't the only folks with a smile on their faces these days. Down on Main Street, perch are making cash registers sing.

"The perch fishing is having a huge impact on our local economies," says Thane Johnson, owner of the famed Kabele's Trading Post and Lodge. "In addition to area residents, I've also had anglers from at least ten states come into the trading post this winter. Our fishing license sales [January/February] are up around 300 percent over last year. Even now, license sales remain strong which means new people are still coming into the area to fish."

"Bait sales are crazy," says Johnson. "In one weekend, we sold over 4,000 containers of wax worms alone. When the weather cooperates, we're doing more business in a weekend than we normally do in a month. It's not just me. Gas stations, eateries, motels --- they all have the same story. Everyone is excited and everyone is benefiting from the fishing.

"Water clarity is good and a lot of anglers are using Aqua-View [underwater] cameras to fish," says Johnson. "Before this year, you'd typically see schools of ten or twelve perch move through, and you'd maybe get one or two to bite.

"This winter, you have to see the fish to believe it. When the really big numbers come into view it's like watching one of those Discovery Channel films showing huge schools of ocean krill. It appears as if there's absolutely no end to them; the perch are like a fog --- a never ending ribbon of fish. When those schools come through, fish get competitive and you catch perch as fast as you can bring them up," said Johnson.

"It's true that Spirit Lake's perch densities are incredible," says Hawkins. "Our data suggests that we could have as much as 100 pounds of perch per acre which translates into somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million fish. These populations are just coming into their own, and the best news for anglers is that next season should be even better than this year. I think this has just been a prelude for what's coming next season."

But there's no need to for anglers to wait until next winter to cash in on the action, says Hawkins. There's still plenty of time to partake in this winter's perch fishing frenzy.

"Regardless of how good the bite has already been this winter, the month of March will typically offer some of the year's best fishing," says Hawkins. "As long as the ice stays, people will be out there. Generally speaking, the later the date the better the fishing."



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