By Josh Avalos DeBruler
A mosaic of unearthly sounds from the expanding and contracting ice reverberated off a frozen lake Curlew and into my frosty tent. Most reasonable anglers opt for a heated room in the nearby town of Republic when ice fishing at this northeastern fishery, but being frugal and adventurous, and perhaps a little out of my mind, I decided to get a true winter experience by tent camping up on a bluff, perched next to the lakes shore. A decision I would later come to question as 15 degree temperatures and what seemed like the never-ending howls of wolves, kept me awake till the early hours of the morning.
An Ice fisherman doesn't have to freeze amongst the wolves to enjoy this fishery. In fact, the nearby town of Republic offers plenty of comfortable lodging with restaurants only walking distances away. Curlew State Park, which is located right next to the lake, is also an option for those who opt to bring along a camper or RV. Regardless of where one chooses to stay, there is plenty of fun and productivity to be had at this bountiful iced over lake. As a bonus, you get a chance to explore some of the Washington’s most beautiful country abound with wildlife ranging from moose and elk, to black bears and white tails.
When it comes to ice fishing, anglers don’t have to look all the way over to the Dakotas or the Great Lakes. Washington State has several northern and eastern lakes that reach temperatures cold enough to offer a robust wintertime fishery. Both Okanogan and Grant County contain the bulk of Washington’s more than 40 ice fishing lakes. If you’re new and wanting to learn the ropes, a thorough look at the WDFW webpage dedicated to the sport, will help you get set up for a safe and fun time out on the ice.
Winter fishing at Curlew Lake provides opportunity for rainbow trout, Tiger Muskie, Northern pike minnow, Largemouth and Smallmouth bass, and a variety of other fish. On my trip, I was targeting yellow perch, a small fish in the same family as walleye that makes for great pan-fair and due to its invasive nature at Curlew Lake, has no size limit and currently provides anglers with the opportunity to retain an unlimited amount of these pan fish. For my first time out to this lake, I brought along a manual ice auger (you may need to do some searching around for these ahead of time as they can be a difficult item to find) a lightweight 4 foot fishing rod, and a 5 gallon bucket to collect my catch. Aside from these pieces of gear, I also carried some essential safety items. Draped around my neck I held a set of corded ice picks. These are small hand held picks that can be jammed into the ice and used as an anchor to pull oneself out of the water in case of a fall through. A measuring tape is also necessary to determine the thickness of the ice. Simply drill a hole, measure the thickness, and make sure that it meets the minimum requirement for whatever amount of weight the ice will be supporting. If snowmobiling is the plan, the ice must be a minimum of 5 inches thick. For a car or truck, 12+ inches is sufficient. Since I was on foot that day, the 12 inches I measured far exceeded the 4 inches required to keep me dry and out of the water. There is a plethora of other safety measures to consider, largely dictated by the idiosyncrasies of the particular lake you are on and the time of year that you are on it. Once again, referring to WDFW webpage should inform you on all of your safety concerns.
My first day on the lake was a dud. This was regardless of the several holes that I had drilled across a vast portion of the ice (a practice known as “prospecting” which should be done with some regularity). It wasn’t until the second day, when I met a friendly local who offered to bring me along to his honey hole that the action heated up in a big way.
The small jigging spoon I had rigged to my 6 pound monofilament was hit within the first few minutes of reaching the bottom column of the lake. To no surprise, out came a plump yellow perch. It’s belly, fat with eggs. I landed a few more over the next 20 minutes or so, but within that same time, my fishing partner had already finished for the day and began packing his things to head home. It turns out, in this short span of time, he had already reached the 30 fish limit in which he had set for himself. The magic was in the bait. To my good fortune, before packing it in, my new fishing buddy let me in on his secret. It was simple and it was increasingly available with each new catch. It was perch eyeball.
Turns out yellow perch don’t shy away from a bit of cannibalism. In fact, they seem to go wild for the eyeballs of their fellow peers. A knife with a sharp point is all that’s needed for the removal process. Be sure to keep the eyeball whole, as these fish, for one reason or another, tend to reject a sloppy eyeball. Once removed it can be hooked to a 1/8th ounce jig head and dropped down through the ice. After that, the action will commence!
The action was so hot after introducing the coveted perch eye, that bringing these fish in with a traditional rod and reel method actually became a bit repetitious and the unvarying nature of it left me wanting to try something new. So, once a tangle in my line had briefly decommissioned my Okuma Ceymar, I decided to deploy my tackle by using only a jig head, bait, and line. I’m not sure if it was the primitive feel of hand lining, or the ability to sense each bite with my fingertips, but the absence of a rod and reel added a new layer of satisfaction to the experience. It was a feeling of self-reliance, one that liberated me from the constraints of mechanical devices, and ultimately brought me to my desired limit of yellow perch. 50 total to be exact.
When ice fishing for perch, there’s a wide array of different tackle and techniques you can use. In general: spoons, jigs, or jig heads with some form of bait, be it an eyeball, a maggot, or a worm, should all get the job done. When attempting to locate the fish, its good practice to deploy the jigging spoon first. The flash of the spoon tends to mimic the look of a bait fish and is often successful in bringing in schools of perch, even if they are not located beneath or immediately near your hole. If the spoon remains productive, stick with what’s working, but I’ve found that once I get into the fish, a jig head with an eyeball or a maggot is effective at enticing a bite.
There are many ways to prepare your yellow perch for consumption. Since I had what felt like a bucket load, I had to look to methods of long term preservation. My plan was to pickle the bulk of my perch, and the ones I kept out of jars, were pan fried whole in sizzling hot oil, picked from the bones, then served over a tostada with guacamole, lime and salsa. Homage to my late grandma and her excellent authentic Mexican cooking! A more common way to prepare this fish would be the traditional fillet, bread, and deep fry method. If you have the time and perhaps a few extra hands to help with the processing, then this is a good choice for a good old fashioned fish fry.
Ice fishing is a wonderful way to get outside during the winter and enjoy a type of fishery that many in the Pacific Northwest don’t typically get to experience. It will allow you to test out your heavy duty winter gear, it will place you in areas that often feel like true “winter wonderlands” and it will likely send you home with a bounty of food for a family fish fry, or for filling up jars with your favorite pickling recipe.