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Tim Watson of Waunakee unhooks a yellow perch while fishing March 17 on Lake Mendota. / Patrick Durkin/Press-Gazette Media correspondent
The action wasn't fast on St. Patrick's Day, but it still produced a full bag of yellow perch. / Patrick Durkin/Press-Gazette Media correspondent
Tim Watson, Waunakee, steps out of his portable ice-fishing shanty March 17 on Lake Mendota. / Patrick Durkin/Press-Gazette Media correspondent

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Judging by their green flanks, orange fins and white bellies, even the yellow perch flopping atop the ice fit the St. Patrick’s Day theme March 17 as I fished Lake Mendota with lifelong friend Tim Watson.

When we first discussed getting together to fish a few weeks earlier and chose St. Patrick’s Day, we assumed we’d end up north of Eau Claire, Wausau or Green Bay. After all, I’ve fished walleyes on the Wolf River on St. Patrick’s Day some years, and seldom went ice fishing so late into March.

But then winter hung on.

And on.

And on.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Watson emailed around March 12 to ask if I wanted to try ice fishing on Lake Mendota, near his home in Waunakee. He’d been catching perch all winter on the Madison area’s largest lake, and said he would have time to scout new areas and test new baits if his favorites weren’t producing. That sounded fine to me.

Watson was stirring steel-cut oatmeal and pouring fresh coffee when I arrived at his home about 6 a.m. the following Monday. After we ate breakfast and caught up on family news, I asked if he’d caught any perch over the weekend.

I know to brace for partly cloudy news when answers begin with a long “Well, ... ” as in:

Well, he had been out the day before, but only for a couple of hours.

“And ... ?”

Well, it had been really windy.

“And ... ?”

Well, he hadn’t taken the shanty, and just bounced around to different holes.

“And ... ?”

Well, he’d gotten a few perch, but it was slow.

“OK. Well, how thick’s the ice?”

Watson’s slight eye roll implied Mendota’s ice could support an M1 Abrams tank.

“My father-in-law called me a liar when I told him it was still 2 feet thick,” Watson said. “It’s at least that, and it’s solid. There’s no honeycomb. Even the shoreline ice is solid.”

About an hour later, I verified his ice report while scooping ice shavings from the 6-inch holes Watson drilled near his ATV and the portable shanty hitched behind. His scooper has a 2-foot wooden handle with handwritten measurements down its length. By kneeling beside the hole and plunging the scooper to its butt, I could hook the scoop to the icy rim below. Yep. Two feet.

Watson finished his drill work by punching three holes in a line about 40 inches long. He then pulled the sled alongside and popped open the portable shanty from within. After lighting his propane heater and lowering the depth finder’s transducer into the center hole, he handed me a stubby ice-fishing rod and a small plastic jar with fresh minnows.

“Hook a minnow through its head, pinch off its body behind the gills, and drop it down,” he instructed. “Fish it right off the bottom. If you see flashes of yellow, black or green on the depth finder, that’s fish. Get ready.”

We were in about 37 feet of water, just a few yards down from the lip of an underwater cliff that plunged from about 30 feet to 60 feet. If we had been standing on the bottom, we’d be at the head of a draw just where it narrows to start its plummet through a narrow gorge.

Most other fishermen were a mile or more out from us, working the 70-foot depths. Watson said they’d been doing well out there, too, but he preferred shallower waters. If nothing else, it’s easier to decipher the finer details flashing across the depth finder’s screen.

A few minutes passed without a bite, and Watson began fussing and fidgeting, obviously worried that the perch wouldn’t cooperate.

“The water really looks stained today,” he said. “Where’s that coming from? It wasn’t stained here yesterday, and I don’t think there’s been much runoff.”

I know an excuse when I hear one, but kept still.

About 15 minutes into our effort, Watson nodded toward the screen. “Those are fish,” he said as a rainbow of flashing colors obscured the narrow bars made by our baits. As if on cue, he set the hook and his lightweight rod bent to the weight of a fighting fish. Seconds later, Watson slid a fat 9-inch perch into his free hand, unhooked it and tossed it into the shanty’s corner.

That’s pretty much how the next six hours passed. The perch never bit fast, we never reeled up a double, and we never moved the shanty in hopes of finding traveling schools of active feeders.

In fact, I never left my seat. Watson, however, occasionally walked outside with his fishing pole to prospect hole to hole. That’s how he caught the first of four walleyes we reeled up and released. Mendota’s walleye season was closed. Even so, only one met its 18-inch size limit.

“Look at this,” Watson had said while poking his head back into the shanty. He held up a sleek, silvery, torpedo-shaped walleye, and slid it into the shanty’s nearest hole. The walleye’s tail flicked back and forth, driving it down the narrow passageway to freedom.

About noon, Watson broke out our sandwiches and studied a new fishing app on his iPhone that was supposed to predict minor and major feeding periods. We tried between bites to recall any distinct feeding-activity patterns in the perch we’d caught. Nothing stood out, however, other than our preference for lunchtime.

Around 2 p.m., Watson poured perch from the plastic shopping bag to count our catch. We had 19 fish, so we agreed to try another half-hour to land a 20th. When that failed, I blamed him.

“If you hadn’t lost that big perch in the hole this morning, we would have had 20,” I said. “Butterfingers. You know, I wouldn’t have lost the handle. I probably would have hooked it better, too.”

After all, I was wearing some green for good luck. It’s not often that one gets to ice fish southern Wisconsin on St. Patrick’s Day.

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