By Rod Woten - Bass Pro Shops Altoona Pro Staff
Even though the hardwater season is a distant memory in central Iowa, there are still great ice conditions to be found within a few hours’ drive. For those willing to put in some windshield time, they can extend their season well into April, AND possibly experience some of the best fishing of the season. Being a tournament and professional ice angler, traveling to fish is a way of life for me. It’s fairly rare, however, for me to travel to do some “fun” fishing. I had the chance to do that exact thing this past weekend, however, and highly recommend you do the same if you still have that hardwater “bug.”
My favorite fish to chase when the lakes ice up is the yellow perch. There are a few places in Iowa where a hardwater junky can go to get their perch fix, but for a shot at a bucketful of true trophies, or “jumbos,” there’s a few places out of state that are sure bets. Fortunately, for those of us in central Iowa, one of those areas is as close as a six-hour drive. That’s the Glacial Lakes region of northeast South Dakota, well known for its prairie potholes, abundance of waterfowl, and JUMBO yellow perch. Since I hadn’t really had the chance to scratch my jumbo perch itch yet this year, and because there wasn’t a single yellow perch fillet left in our freezer, I decided it was time to revisit this great area of South Dakota.
I called the usual suspects, and soon we were putting our trip together. Our base was to be the town of Webster, SD, near one of the more popular lakes in the area, Waubay Lake. I called The Galley Steakhouse Lounge and Motel and was relieved to hear we could book the last remaining vacancies they had for that weekend. Friday seemed like the longest day ever at work, but as soon as the buzzer rang, we were out the door and headed to Webster. We rolled into town shortly after 11 p.m. that evening. The Galley has a very sportsman-like feel to it with mounted fish, geese, pheasants and ducks adorning the knotty pine paneled walls in the lobby. The rooms are simple, but very comfortable and quite affordable. The Galley also has heated kennels available for the upland and waterfowl hunters, as well as heated game and fish cleaning facilities. The attached restaurant and lounge boasts a menu of hearty offerings at very reasonable prices. We really appreciated the close proximity of the restaurant, as well as the hot hearty meals when we returned from our first day of fishing, famished and nearly exhausted from drilling holes and trudging through slush all day.
Saturday morning we decided to attack the north end of Waubay Lake in search of its famous jumbos and walleyes. We divided into two groups: One group would try to fish several likely walleye spots with Arctic Warrior tip-ups, while my crew would fish the mud flats and edges of sharp breaks in search of rapidly moving schools of jumbo perch. Fishing was very slow for the first half of the morning. The tip-up crew only had one walleye to show for their efforts and most in my group hadn’t even marked a fish. I pulled up my lake map and was able to identify an inside corner in the mud basin adjacent to a sharp break. I was just sure that corner would concentrate fish, so I set off on my own with an auger, my Vexilar, and jigging rod to find out. I drilled about a half-dozen holes over the area I had marked on my GPS and sat down to fish the first hole. No sooner had I dropped my Chubby Darter down to within six feet of the bottom than a red mark rose up to meet it. Within seconds, it felt like something was trying to rip my rod out of my hands. I fought it for several minutes before bringing a nice chunky smallmouth to the surface.
I signaled to the rest of the crew that I had at least found some fish, and soon we were all punching additional holes over the new spot. Before long, just about everyone had caught a smallmouth or two, but we had yet to see any of those elusive jumbos. By continuing to drill holes and move around, we did start to catch a few smaller perch, and a few that were just big enough to keep. Even a few smaller walleyes were caught. We continued to drill holes, working our way south towards the main basin of the lake. I had just finished drilling a string when I saw one of the others in my group pulling a nice perch from the center-most holes. He excitedly told us that the whole bottom of his flasher was lit up like a Christmas tree, and the whole group was instantly drilling more holes around him or fishing holes already near him. Every time a fish was pulled up, someone else would drop down the same hole and try their luck. Not only did this increase our catch rate, but it also helped to ensure that the perch always had something hanging in their faces to keep their interest and keep them under us. This went on for what seemed like a long time, but was probably more like ten minutes. Even despite our best efforts, the perch finally got wise to us, and moved off. At the end of the flurry, about 20 perch in the 11 to 13 inch range were laying on the ice.
For those that have never ice fished for perch on big water, this is a classic perch pattern. Sometimes it takes MANY holes before you happen to land on a nice pod of perch. All that work is well worth it, though, because once you land on that pod, the fish will be stacked 6, 8, sometimes even as high as 12 feet off the bottom, and they’ll be HUNGRY. It often doesn’t matter what you drop down to them when they’re schooled up like this because they are aggressively feeding and will eat anything you throw down there. It’s one of the reasons I LOVE perch fishing so much…..drilling holes across vast amounts of water looking for that BONANZA…and when you find it, the feeling is indescribable!
Drilling holes throughout the early afternoon yielded us only a few smaller single perch, so we decided to head back to the access, load up, and head to the South end of the lake. Reports had indicated that the south end had actually been better fishing than the north end, so we were anxious for what the afternoon might bring. On our way back to the access, we were a little surprised at how often our snowmobiles would punch through the crust that had been frozen and slick that morning. The warmth of the day was definitely taking a toll on the crust-slush-ice sandwich we’d been traveling and the access was definitely beginning to show it.
Arriving at the Kanago access only offered more of the same. In fact, the south end of the lake was actually worse than the north end had been. We had to keep our speed up on the snowmobiles and use our momentum to get us through several of the larger slush pockets, and walking through it was a chore. We fished several likely looking contours on the south end, but didn’t even see a mark. Fortunately, our tip-up crew that had also migrated to the south end was having much better luck than we were, with a couple of guys in that crew actually catching their daily limit of four walleyes.
Before long the light began to fade and we decided to get off the lake while there was still enough light to see the deteriorating conditions at the access. We managed to get off the lake safely, returned to The Galley, cleaned our fish, met in the lounge for a nice hot meal, and then collapsed into bed.
The next morning we headed south out of Webster to Swan Lake. We had heard decent reports from Swan for prior weeks, but all indications were that it had slowed down recently and there was lots of sorting through small fish to get any keeper jumbos. Regardless, we wanted to try it. We arrived at the north-most access and were disappointed to find a fair amount of open water. There was a very muddy, sloppy detour to the side that ATVs had obviously been using, but that was a definite no-go for our snowmobiles. We continued south to the other access and found it to be in much better shape, so we wasted no time in getting on the lake.
Since contours are not available for Swan, we didn’t have the luxury of using the GPS like we did the previous day. Luckily, a friend that had been out there last week told us about two areas he had seen fish in, so those were our starting points. Upon arriving at our first spot, we drilled a dozen or so holes over the area and immediately got to work. Several minutes without marking a fish meant the augers were soon going again, expanding our field of holes in a northeasterly direction. Finally, on the leading edge of that northeasterly push, we began to mark fish. I settled in on a hole and within a few minutes of aggressively jigging my Chubby Darter, my Vexilar lit up with five distinct marks. I teased and finessed those marks for what seemed like an eternity in an effort to entice a bite, but to no avail. Finally, I shouted out to see if anyone had something smaller tied on that they could drop down the hole and catch one of these marks. I was pretty sure it was a small pod of perch, but until we landed one that was just speculation. No sooner had those words left my mouth than WHAM! One of the marks had inhaled my Darter. Sure enough, the school that had moved in underneath me was jumbo perch. Unfortunately, they were on the move, too. In the time it took me to unhook the fish I had just caught…and before anyone else could make it over to drop down and keep the perch interested…they had moved on. After picking up a nice walleye at another hole, things started to die down on that first area. We decided that since we were only fishing until noon, that we should pack up and move to the second area we had received the hot tip on.
Upon arriving at our second spot, it was obvious that this had at one time been a community spot. In fact, it had been warm enough recently that we didn’t even need to drill holes; we just kicked open the thin layer of ice over the existing holes. As we dropped our Vexilars down and started to check holes, we were very surprised to see that almost every hole had marks in them. Obviously, we wasted no time in getting right down to fishing. We then realized why all the reports had mentioned all the sorting required to catch jumbos. Nearly every fish we pulled up was between six and nine inches. While it was nice to feel the tug on the other end of the line, these fish were definitely not what we were looking for. We responded by switching holes regularly. It wasn’t long before we caught our first jumbos by doing this. It was nice to see that there were at least a few jumbos still left in this community spot. We continued to sort through smaller perch picking up a jumbo here and a jumbo there.
Before we even realized it, noon had come and gone, and it was time for us to load up and head back to Iowa. We had caught enough jumbos that each of us could have a nice supper if we wanted to. Most were in the 10 to 12 inch range, but we did manage one very nice 14” piggy off that spot. As we were driving across the lake towards the access to leave, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the ice conditions were on Swan compared to Waubay. We discussed afterwards how we wished we had fished Swan on Saturday, too. Slush was almost non-existent on Swan and the south access was holding up surprisingly well.
The moral of the story is that just because there’s no ice here, that doesn’t mean your hardwater season has to be over. There is still a lot of ice in places like South Dakota and northern Minnesota. Because of the massive amounts of snow they received this winter, the ice has been well preserved. As conditions warm, that snow pack will compact and slush pockets will become less and less of an issue. The ice will eventually get to a point where it will only support foot traffic, but that point is still several weeks away. The fishing will only improve from here on out, too. We had marginal success while we were there, but it was enough that I’m satisfied with the trip, and feel it was a great way to end my season. I am a little sad that I might be missing some of the best fishing of the season up there yet. Trust me, I’d be right back out there in a heartbeat if my schedule allowed. I have fly fishing clients to tend to already, but there’s no reason some of the rest of you can’t put a trip together and enjoy some of this late season ice while it’s still there. There are great accommodations right in the heart of the glacial lakes region of South Dakota in towns like Webster, Watertown, and Grenville. These places cater to sportsmen and are usually very affordable. Get a group together and give one of them a call today to book a room. It’s hard to beat the feeling you get when you’re able to say that you were ice fishing in APRIL! Good luck!