Guide pulls perch despite poor conditions
March blew in yesterday with January ferocity and a whisper of winter well into April.
Tough conditions for folks who make their living outdoors, including veteran McFarland guide Ron Barefield.
Snow cover nearly three feet deep on lakes and ice in southern Wisconsin has compounded the difficulty of pulling fish from under the ice. These conditions contribute to oxygen depletion in the water column, fostering malaise and lethargy in fish that aren’t really interested in chasing down food, anyway.
Perch are a favorite quarry Barefield’s clients seek as we ease into March. Lake Mendota offers both acceptable size and numbers of these tasty tigers to those who know secrets within secrets when it comes to catching fish.
Barefield refined standard winter fishing gear and tactics to extreme levels, consistently icing perch that thrive on licking frosting rather than heartily taking the cake.
Perch on Lake Mendota spend much of the winter in 60 to 70 feet of water, feeding gingerly on tiny invertebrates such as bloodworms, which dwell in the nether reaches of the water column.
Coaxing a 9-inch perch out of 65 feet of water is no easy task, even when fish are in a rare positive winter feeding mood. Most of the time these fish are neutral at best, lazily investigating morsels that they would find irresistible under more seasonal March fishing conditions.
Barefield employs two different rod configurations for Mendota’s deep water perch. Under extreme conditions he picks up a rod with considerable backbone and an ultra-sensitive spring bobber such as the St. Croix Legend gold series.
The reel is spooled with 4-pound test superbraid line, which has limited stretch—a major consideration when trying to hook a fish at more than 60 feet down. A tiny No. 10 barrel swivel minimizes line twist above a 2-pound test 12- to 18-inch fluorocarbon leader with a tiny Northland Puppet Minnow or Buckshot Rattlin’ Spoon on the business end. Two or three spikes are impaled on the lure’s hooks to sweeten the presentation.
The downside of this rig comes in the time it takes to lower an eighth-ounce lure down to the fish. When perch only feel compelled to offer a desultory investigation of your most seductive jigging efforts once every 10 minutes, the two minutes it takes to lower this offering into their living room is not an issue.
When perch are in a more inquisitive mood, Barefield will pick up a whippy rod with a “hanger rig.”
Like the venerable Swish rod, the hanger rig is the product of the wind-chilled mind of an unknown Lake Mendota perch jerker.
The term “hanger rig” is derived from the foot-long piece of metal coathanger used as a sinker to rapidly drop No. 14 hooks down to perch schools cruising 60 to 70 feet down.
One or two hooks on a 2-pound fluorocarbon leader just slightly shorter than the length of the coat hanger allow quick deployment with minimal tangles as an angler tries to get his hooks in front of fish before the school glides away.
My favorite hanger rig weapon is a pair of Marmooska tungsten gem jigs with a pumpkin colored B-Y plastic Mud Bug. Plastics don’t get slurped off the hook like spikes often do. When only a hook remains to tempt the perch, they just keep moving on.
Of course, the biggest factor in catching Mendota perch is finding them in the first place. Many anglers use a “Madison fish locator,” more commonly known as a pair of binoculars.
A crowd quickly gathers when somebody pulls a couple of those golden tigers through the ice.
You won’t see Barefield within 200 yards of such a gathering. He knows any active perch will quickly squirt away from commotion overhead. Barefield is a master of subterfuge and deception. The Madison fish locator is of little value, even in the hands of an astute observer.
Get more than 20 yards away and Barefield looks like just another lump on a bucket. Get closer and lift an ear flap on your winter fishing hat and you’ll hear tails slapping plastic in the six-gallon nest beneath this sly old fish hawk.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.