The jig-hooked minnow 3 feet below my hole in Lake Winnebago’s ice swam doggedly in place on its tether, as if yelling up at me, “All right, all right. Leave me alone. I’m trying!”
I had just prodded it into action by lifting the rod tip a few inches and twitching it a couple of times, hoping to tempt yellow perch to strike. And then everything but the minnow’s tail suddenly disappeared as I pushed the rod’s handle back into the holder on the seat beside me.
The sight startled me, but just as quickly I realized a perch had sucked in my minnow, leaving only the tail protruding from its maw. I grabbed the rod and yanked the perch onto the ice before it could spit the hook.
“Got one,” I called out to Dan Benish, my friend and host from Oshkosh. Benish likes to fish Winnebago as soon as December makes enough ice for safe walking. Along with many other anglers, Benish often finds perch and bluegills before Christmas in the bays and shallows along the big lake’s western shoreline.
When confirming our rendezvous time and place the previous afternoon, Benish had emailed: “I went out this morning for a couple of hours and caught about a dozen nice, fat perch. I left a few for you to catch tomorrow.”
His follow-up email advised me not to worry about buying bait. He said he still had enough minnows and waxworms for our trip. How thoughtful, right?
Once we were out on the ice at dawn Saturday, Benish glanced at my two ice-fishing rigs and found them wanting. He said we’d be fishing within sight of the lake’s bottom, and so my reel-equipped rods wouldn’t work as well as his assortment of jigging poles spooled with short lengths of lightweight line.
“I bring a bunch of poles so if a line breaks on one, I don’t need to retie everything,” Benish said. “I just grab another pole and keep fishing.”
He then drilled two 6-inch holes through about 4 inches of ice with a hand auger, invited me to use his flip-up shanty, and instructed me to sit down and step on its interior flaps to seal out light breezes sweeping across the ice.
Even though Benish and I arrived as the sun rose above Winnebago, we weren’t first on the scene. We saw other shanties, ice fishermen and scattered snowmobiles north, east and south of us while pulling our plastic sleds toward Benish’s chosen spot.
I swept our surroundings as we walked out, hoping to see anglers pulling perch or bluegills onto the ice. But no one seemed to be setting hooks or catching anything. Hmm. Maybe all the action was inside those portable shanties. And maybe they were hiding their success behind all those windproof, lightweight walls of red, blue or black.
Roughly a half-hour went by before my minnow disappeared into that perch mentioned earlier. Thinking I might have triggered that first bite by raising, lowering and jigging the minnow, I kept it hopping for the next 10 minutes. I did the same with the other rod, too, which held a waxworm and tiny ice-fishing jig.
Despite my best efforts, I coaxed nothing into view of my baits. But by the time the first hour passed, I knew every leaf, stem and seaweed strand on the lake’s floor below my two holes in the ice. Winnebago’s waters weren’t Windex-clear, but I easily saw the next perch’s dark vertical stripes and orange-tipped pelvic fins when it slashed in to swipe my minnow.
As the perch tried swimming away with my bait, I yanked it around, guided it into the hole, and slid it onto the ice. Seconds later it, too, was flopping inside the bucket.
Benish and I combined to catch six perch by 10:30 a.m., but we didn’t come close to duplicating the action he enjoyed the previous day. We agreed to blame our modest results on the day’s clear, sunny skies. We agreed we generally enjoy better action on overcast days, and noted the previous day’s clouds had vanished with the dawn.
As we started packing up, Benish stopped me when I transferred my perch into a 5-gallon bucket. “How about giving me those fish, and we’ll stop by my house so I can give you the ones I cleaned yesterday,” he said.
I agreed without pretense or false resistance. I also didn’t ask how many perch fillets were bagged and waiting in his refrigerator. Benish knew I was running late for an appointment back home, and assured me that he’d have our catch filleted and skinned before I reached Oshkosh’s outskirts.
Fair enough. I shrugged and thanked him, knowing I’ll seldom receive a tastier, more thoughtful favor.