Late Winter Harvest: Feeding Generations on Northeast Natives

Late Winter Harvest: Feeding Generations on Northeast Natives

I don’t remember my first fish, but there’s a good chance it was a white perch. I’m pondering that perch, and thinking about the species in general, as I tip my jig with a shiner chunk and drop it to the bottom. White perch aren’t actually perch; they’re a cousin to the much larger and more glamorous stripers, natives of the Northeast, like me, like my father, and his father.

My father stands nearby, beside his long-time fishing buddy, Jeff. They huddle over holes augured through the shrinking late-winter ice, jigging lures a foot or so off the bottom. We’re all in a silent, slow morning reverie when one of the pike traps we’d set before sunrise goes off.

We walk the short distance to the trap. When we arrive, the spool is a blur.

“You should take this one, Jeffrey!” my father says.

“Nahhh,” Jeff says, “I have standards, you know? No invasives for me.”

We all laugh at the ongoing joke, the kind that’s more familiar than funny. Jeff the traditionalist, raising his nose at invasives and targeting salmon and brookies instead; and my father, who loves hardwater pike fishing as much as I do, saving salmon and brookies for dry-fly season. This is the first time in years we’ve convinced Jeff to join us for pike fishing. He’s agreed to come because this pond holds white perch, and white perch are both native and delicious.

I’d rather battle a 40-inch northern, but white perch fight well for their size and their meat is second to none—delicate, flaky, sweet, all the adjectives we toss at the fish we like to eat. Unlike the Midwest, where yellows are kings of the panfish, white perch reign here. They school up in deep troughs or along shoals during early winter, chasing alewives, shiners or smelt. They’re the perfect target species for kids, or anyone else with a deep hunger and shallow attention span. Out here, in the Belgrade Lakes, white perch keep my father and me busy between pike flags.

“It’s all yours,” I say to Jeff, the spool still cranking. “Come on over to the dark side.”

Jeff concedes and lifts the trap. He sets the hook and plays the fish.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but it certainly doesn’t feel like a pike.”

A few moments later, Jeff hauls a hefty perch through the hole. It takes a few seconds to register its size; the 3/0 hook (the same hook we use, each spring, for giant tarpon) protrudes from its lip. Its distended belly hides a six-inch shiner.

“Look at the size of that thing!” Jeff shouts.

It’s one of the biggest perch I’ve seen, as big, or bigger than the two-pound humpies I caught as a boy. I grab my jigging rod and drop the small, pearl-colored Swedish Pimple, which resembles an alewife. I find bottom 30 feet down, wind up four turns, then impart short, irregular bumps. The key is to pause; white perch almost always bite on the pause. I feel the telltale thump and lift the rod quickly, though not quickly enough.

“What happened to those reflexes?” my father shouts.

“At least I still have some,” I shout back.

I re-bait the treble hook with a shiner tail section, making sure it dangles naturally beneath the lure. A few minutes later, another subtle bite, and this time I hook up. The jig rod feels absurdly thin, doubled over and pointed toward the hole. A fat perch circles and I launch it onto the ice. We catch a few more—none as big as the first, but all eating-size—before the school passes through, and it’s quiet again. That’s how it goes with white perch, the school moves through and then they disappear.

Late in the afternoon—after we land a pike and a few well-fed smallies—we set a couple traps with emerald shiners, leftovers Jeff brought from a recent salmon trip. There’s a handful of perch on the ice, enough for one person, but I’m hoping we can all go home with a meal. In theory, the perch sets should alert us when a school swims through, and, if we’re fast enough, we might jig a few before they’re gone.

We gather near our snowmobile, snacking and scanning traps. The pond is bathed in yellow-blue light, and I think back on warm summer evenings trolling with my father and grandfather. We’d have three rods going—our blaze orange Rapalas 50 yards back—and it was my job to reel perch in. I’d stand near the outboard, waiting. It usually didn’t take long, since the perch were feeding high in the column, that time of day. A rod would buckle and I’d lift it from its holder and reel like hell. On the boat ride back to my grandparent’s cabin, which seemed to take forever, I’d admire the white perch piled in our bucket, their iridescence fading, their scales stuck to my fingers.

A flag trips, and Jeff hollers. We walk to it quickly and my father pulls up another fat perch. Over the next half hour, as the sun dips toward the western hills, we jig up eight or nine more. It feels good to harvest such an abundant species, one that jump-started my love of angling. Light fades; we pick up and head in. I’m grateful for the fish, and for the good company.

Back at my father’s, we prep the kitchen like my grandparents did when we’d arrive after trolling: two eggs beaten in a bowl, a heap of bread crumbs in another. Tonight, I fillet the perch—role reversal from childhood—as my father preps the skillet with olive oil. I wait until the skillet is sizzling, then drop the first batch in, coated thickly with crumbs. It’s just as I remember: flesh crackling and curling in the heat. Just a few minutes on each side, then I place the golden perch atop paper towels my father has arranged on a platter. Once they’re all cooked, I squeeze a lemon wedge over them. My father and I sit by his woodstove, listening to the crackles and snaps of logs. We eat white perch with our hands, just like we used to do, like we’ve always done.

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