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Speed limit: S.D. anglers catching perch quickly, easily

Grenville, S.D. Dan Hammer's brother has been having good luck catching perch on Waubay Lake recently. So much so that one day he timed how long it would take to catch his limit of 10 fish. Final tally: 11 minutes. Waubay can still be that good, ...

Dan Hammer

Grenville, S.D.

Dan Hammer's brother has been having good luck catching perch on Waubay Lake recently. So much so that one day he timed how long it would take to catch his limit of 10 fish. Final tally: 11 minutes.

Waubay can still be that good, with anglers taking scads of plump 12- and 13-inch perch one after another. The South Dakota lake, located about two hours south of Fargo-Moorhead, is still a destination.

However, biologists give this word of warning: Enjoy it while it lasts.

Waubay's perch population is aging fast and, without a significant hatch in the last six years, will soon begin dying off. When that happens, the popular ice-fishing spot could be quiet - at least for perch - for several years.

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"Fish it while you can and then keep your fingers crossed for a good year-class," said Mark Ermer, regional fisheries manager for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Webster.

Waubay became a hot perch lake in the late 1990s, after several years of high runoff flooded the one-time duck slough and made it into a huge lake. It was fertile grounds for several species of fish including walleye and northern pike, but it was the perch that attracted the anglers. The perch grew fast and fat in Waubay and anglers took them out by the tens of thousands.

After the wet cycle slowed, however, the perch stopped having big reproductive years. Ermer said it's probably because the lake, without run-off, doesn't have enough nutrients to support young perch after they hatch. And without a bumper crop of perch, the little ones that do survive are likely gobbled up by the hungry mouths of walleye and pike that roam Waubay.

Bottom line for anglers is this: Waubay hasn't had a significant year-class of perch since 2001, Ermer said, and the perch remaining in the lake are all senior citizens. They are soon going to succumb to natural mortality, whether or not they are caught.

"The perch fishery in Waubay is dominated by 8- and 9-year-old fish. That is extremely old for a perch in the South Dakota environment. Usually perch live to be 5 or 6 years old, so we're actually surprised we've gotten as many years out of these fish as we have," Ermer said.

Once the perch currently roaming the bottom of Waubay die off, there is going to be a void until the fish pull off another good hatch. When that happens depends on Mother Nature. If there is a winter with significant snowfall and Waubay takes on a good amount of runoff, Ermer said he's confident the perch will have a good hatch.

"It takes about three years for perch in this area to grow to where they are attractive to anglers, in that 8- or 9-inch range," Ermer said. "So even when we do get significant runoff again and the perch have a good reproductive year, it's going to be three years until the good fishing returns."

In the meantime, take advantage. Waubay is not brimming with big perch like it was in the heyday of 2000-01, but there are still plenty of the fast-biting panfish in the lake. And because they are old, they are big. Females are pushing 13 inches and the smaller males are measuring nine inches.

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A recent day-trip to Waubay with Hammer, the former KVLY-TV sportscaster who is from nearby Sisseton, S.D., didn't yield a limit, but there was a nice flurry just prior to sunset that put 11 fish on the ice (and many missed strikes). It was a mix of jumbo females, their bellies sagging with eggs, and slimmer males.

"Where else in North America can you catch perch like these?" Hammer asked, admiring a foot-long perch in the waning daylight.

The answer: Not many places. And, if biologists are correct, not much longer on Waubay, either.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580

Dan Hammer

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