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PERFECT STORMS...Perch schools cloud electronics, draw anglers

Dick Ellis NoteThis Story took place in July of 2007 on Lake Mendota with D&S Bait owner Gene Dellinger.  The size and numbers of Madison’s perch fishery fluctuate with the years. It is well worth your time to keep tabs on the status with the D&S contact numbers concluding this story.

It came as no surprise to Gene Dellinger when vast schools of Lake Mendota perch clouded his electronics and he played to a constant, double hit parade like a two-baton maestro. True, the “Old Timers” on the Madison lake say that the perch, those spectacular schools of big fish, come just once every seven years and the last “really good year” on Mendota was by coincidence or not in 1999-2000. But Dellinger, professional guide and owner of D&S Bait in Madison, had personally seen good fishing and these golden oldies to 10 and 11 inches on the horizon as early as last summer and again on the hardwater of winter.

Fishing for perch Lake Mendota, Madison WI

“Madison area guide Gene Dellinger sets the hook on another Lake Mendota perch.  Once the schools were located following an hour search, action remained fast and furious for two hours until three anglers called it a fish fry.”

“We had pretty good success over the last year without a lot of pressure,” Dellinger said.  “Yesterday we caught 75 fish in 90 minutes. That’s typical when they’re on. Those schools were 10 feet thick. This morning there were 20 boats. Tomorrow there will probably be 50 boats. In 2000 there were literally 500 boats on the water every day and everyone was catching perch.”

Kurt Welke, DNR fisheries manager for Dane County, can’t agree with the seven-year cycle theory embraced by some veteran Madtown anglers.  He’s a facts and figures man who relies on historical data and evidence to lead him to conclusions or possible predictions.  Like any typical perch water, he said, Mendota’s perch horizon is scattered with “ifs”. He can agree that when the hatches are good and the factors that must fall in place to allow the fish to grow to adulthood in fact do, Mendota is a great perch fishery.

perch fishing Lake Mendota Lake Mendota perch fishing
“Guide and bait shop owner Gene Dellinger shows two typical Lake Mendota perch the first week of July after yet another `double’ kept two rods busy at once.” “Several smallmouth like this one caught by Guide Gene Dellinger interrupted the Lake Mendota perch hunt. Big whitebass commonly taken by Dellinger also kept the afternoon interesting.”

The DNR, Welke said, does not conduct a perch census on Mendota due to a spring survey focus on walleye, musky and northern pike. The state instead defers the perch count to UW-Madison, which uses two inch to 2.5 inch graded mesh gill nets as an indexing tool on large perch desirable to anglers. Over a 26 year time period of coordinating those counts, he said, the average nightly catch is 31 fish.  In 2000, the University caught 140 perch per night, or three to four times the average. The last five years, the average catch has been one perch per night of surveying.

wisconsin perch fishing

“Gene Dellinger can catch whitebass like this one motor trolling any time the Lake Mendota perch hunt slows and his clients show an interest.”

“First and foremost that is typical of a perch fishery even if the DNR or anglers did nothing,” he said.  “It all depends on the successes and survival of the hatch.  When it all comes together you have perch. But it varies widely.”

The fish being caught today in abundance in the nine to 11 inch class, he said, are “expressing themselves as adults” seven years after their hatch. They were able to escape harvest or other mortality in mass long enough to age and grow to a desirable size. Ice conditions, for example, have not been good enough, long enough to allow hardwater anglers sustained pressure on that class. A strong year class of 2004 are still in the six-inch range but must persevere for another two years against mortality factors that could include as examples natural predation, human predation or even the fish virus new to Wisconsin.

mendota perch lake mendota fishing
“Mendota perch fishing this year is the best in seven years, according to locals, with fish now being taken in quality and quantity.” “John Ellis sets the hook on a Lake Mendota perch before immediately reaching for another bouncing rod. Passing schools means numerous `doubles’ for the anglers most often fishing bottom. These fish were found halfway down the water column.”

“The Mendota perch fishery is a little better than average but how long will it last?” Welke said. “How many of the 2004 class will make it to quality size.  A lot can happen in two years.  Yellow perch are competitors with whitebass and there’s only so much food.  There are a lot of variables. When the fishing is good with something as popular as the yellow perch, the word gets out.  They school, they can be targeted and that pressure is very effective (in harvesting).”

Dellinger wasn’t surprised to catch big Mendota perch and lots of them. He was surprised with a reporter in the boat a day later among a ring of many other boats near Governor’s Island that only a few perch had been taken in an hour. Dellinger did what a good guide does when fishing is tough. He moved and altered the presentation that had worked bottom holding fish seeking insects or plankton in the mud with jigs dressed with spikes and hellgrammites.

Hundreds of yards from where the ring of boats were anchored and remained anchored, Dellinger set up shop and began to work the water column half way down in 24 feet of water. Using the same bait, perch came constantly. It was difficult to remain baited.  Most often Dellinger, my brother John, and I were setting down one hooked fish to attend to another.  We called it a day with plenty of perch for a very good fish fry but could have caught 75 perch at that spot in two hours had we stayed. Thanks to a necessary change by the captain, we had experienced the Golden Oldies of Lake Mendota.

perch fishing wisconsin perch catch at Lake Mendota
“Two typical Lake Mendota perch are the result of two bouncing rods for John Ellis as another school passes by the first week of July.” “After non-stop action on Lake Mendota the first week of July, three anglers have a cooler full of fish to divide for a fish fry.”

“That bite always puzzles me,” Dellinger said.  “We were in 24 feet of water and we turned the reel to work water about 12 feet down. You can’t always see the fish there. I do a panfish seminar and I tell people to always have a rod set half-way down. But I don’t always do it myself.  Today we had to try something different and it’s what we should have been doing since we got out here.”

Contact Gene Dellinger and D&S Bait at www.dsbait.com or 1-608-241-4225.  Contact the D&S Bait fishing hotline at 608- BIGFISH (244-3474.)

THE TACTICS

According to Guide Gene Dellinger, Lake Mendota perch are so desirable in taste, that a good year in quality and quantity will routinely pull anglers to Madison from a radius of 150 miles.  Its immense size just shy of 10,000 acres with a maximum depth of 82 feet doesn’t intimidate the masses. It’s not hard to find a perch party on the water when you count the boats by the scores, or to learn a tactic that most often targets insect-feeding fish working bottom mud.

“Right now they’re in 19-22 feet of water,” he said prior to our own trip. “Lots of perch fishing elsewhere is done on the rocks with minnows. These fish will come up but generally they feed by picking bugs and plankton right off the bottom. We’re vertical fishing with a 1/32nd ounce jig and plastic tail in a variety of colors tipped with two spikes and a hellgrammite with a heavy split shot above it. We use just a piece of hellgrammite for the smell.  They can pick the hellgrammite pretty easy but there is no reason to abandon the hook if a piece of meat (spike) is still there. The jigs and plastics give us profile and color options.  We don’t use a bobber, and we use real light, fast action rods. The bites are detected on the rod tips.  It works like a spring bobber in the winter.”

SIDEBAR END