The blessing of a great fighting fish

A nice catch by Steve Osborne. Photo by Bradley Carleton.

The last week of February and the first two weeks of March are one of my favorite times in winter. The days are growing longer, the sun is higher in the sky, and the breezes begin to carry the promise of warmer days ahead. And most importantly the Great White Perch season is in full swing!

This blessing of a great fighting fish is paradoxically a bane to our ecosystem. You see, the white perch (actually, a bass called Morone Americana) is an invasive species that is harming the balance of our lakes. It out-forages other native species like yellow perch and feeds heavily on smelt and walleye fry. For this reason, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has no limit on the number you can catch. I’m talking BIG numbers! Like 200-500 fish in a day! And the outdoors community is doing everything they can to take advantage of this blessing – or curse – depending on which side of the shanty you sit on.

Actually it’s generally so nice out on the lake this time of year that most ice fisherpeople come out of their shanties to soak up the sun in comfortable folding chairs, pulling up one fish after another and whooping loudly when they catch one giant whitey, which occasionally tip the scales around two pounds and 14 to 16 inches. The beautiful thing about fishing for white perch is that no one is left out. Most ice fisherpeople will keep their best spots a secret when it comes to yellow perch, smelt, walleyes, trout, salmon, lakers or pike. But when the whites come in, everyone is invited. If you see someone 50 yards away from you “bailing” fish (putting one after another in the bucket) pick up your equipment and ask if you can sit beside them. Maybe offer them a donut or coffee but the answer is almost always “Sure! Pull up a chair and help me out here!” It’s a friendly atmosphere, almost carnival-like, with the sunshine pouring down, the smell of someone grilling burgers and hot dogs on the ice and war whoops every time someone lands a big one.

Now for the “why.” Because they taste great! Although they are a bit slimy to clean, with a decent fillet knife – I prefer the electric variety – you can clean one fish every one to two minutes into neatly de-boned fillets. I take the little ones (under 7”) and grind the fillets in a blender until they make a pasty solution, add breadcrumbs, finely chopped green beans and hot Thai sauce. I squeeze them into patties and bake them on a cookie sheet, then freeze them in vacuum sealed packages of six, stack them in the freezer, and when you don’t want to do a lot of prep work for a quick dinner, warm the back up on a cookie sheet. Add some red pepper relish and BAM! You’ve got a great appetizer or entrée.

“Okay, all this sounds great, but where do I go,” you ask. That’s easy. You follow Tiffany Tenney and her fiancé Jacob Holmberg. Or you can just drive up to St Albans Bay and head to Hathaway Point. Parking is limited to the access and the roadside, unless there’s enough ice to drive on (never drive on ice unless it is at least 12-18” thick and a clear black base). Most people will just walk out to the toward the green can and set up shop about 200 yards offshore in about 15-18’ of water. For equipment it’s best to have a small ice rod, 24 to 30 inches, and an open-faced reel with two pound or four pound line. Add a lure like a Swedish pimple or spoon type lure, tip it with a piece of nightcrawler or spikes (fisherpeople call them “spikes” because the gentry get grossed out by calling them by their more common nomenclature – maggots).

Once you’ve gotten over the heebie-jeebies of putting these little creatures on the hook, lower the lure down until it “bounces” off the bottom. Reel it up just a turn or two and gently jig it up and down in tiny movements. If you’re there on the right day you will get bites nonstop and soon you will be battling the mighty Morone Americana and trying to wrestle it up through the icy cylinder of water. And when you do, you’ll want to let out a war whoop all your own. Come join Tiffany, Jacob, and my fishing buddies Steve Osborne, Chris Thayer, Doug Hartwell, and my lovely bride, Katie Carleton, for an afternoon of sunshine, laughter and white perch!

Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred Hunter, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.