ORTONVILLE, Minn. | OK. I’ve never been able to keep a secret, and I’m not going to start now. So, here it is.
There is an incredible perch bite going on Big Stone Lake in northeastern South Dakota. For most of us, down here in Siouxland, that’s a news story. Who knew?
Gary Howey, of Hartington, Neb., and I fished there last week. We had been told the perch were going wild, so we had to find out. Guided by Artie Arndt, owner of Artie’s Bait and Tackle in Ortonville, and his fishing friend Eric Brandriet, Big Stone City, we soon learned the rumor was true.
I packed a bunch of spikes onto the single hook of my small ice fishing spoon and dropped it down into 9 feet of water. The depth finder showed the lure just off the bottom. I wiggled it a little bit and a fish showed up. Right away my bite indicator took a dip and I set the hook. Perch No. 1 popped out of the hole.
It was frigid outside. Temps in the teens. But we were in shirtsleeve comfort inside of one of five Ice Castle Ice Houses Artie rents to ice fishermen. A generator gives the house 110-volt power. The house we were in is 8 feet by 16 feet and sleeps four. He has four of them and one day house.
A 22-inch television sat on one of the counters, but we weren’t watching TV. The set was hooked up to an underwater camera that revealed schools of perch roving through, checking out our lures. Talk about entertainment.
We all caught several perch, and then the bite slowed. We soon found out why. A northern pike drifted by in front of the camera, his evil eyes sweeping the area, and disdained our lures. He was after bigger prey. Perch, for instance. And the perch knew it. They were gone.
But 15 minutes later the pike was gone and the perch were back. We were in action once again.
Big Stone has always been noted as a premier walleye lake. It’s also got good numbers of northern pike and big bluegills. But now perch are the big news.
“The perch really came on about three years ago,” Artie said. “The lake is just full of them of all sizes.”
And we were catching them. We did some sorting, releasing the little guys to grow some more, and our largest ranged up to a pound.
There didn’t seem to be a real hot lure. We caught them on a number of small ice fishing jigs and spoons. Most of the time we were using Lindy’s Rattl’N Flyer spoon and Frostee spoons in 1/16-ounce sizes.
We tipped them with spikes, which are larvae of the blow fly. For those of you who would like to know more about spikes, I’ll tell you this: They are the same maggots that show up on dead critters in the summertime. They are about a half-inch long and white with two small black eyes on their head. The head is kind of flat and hard and they should be hooked lightly between the black spots. They must be kept refrigerated or they will soon turn into a brown cocoon.
We were fishing the southern end of the lake just below Skeleton Island. There was no structure here, just the lake’s basin.
Big Stone is an interesting lake. It’s 26 miles long and averages about three-quarters of a mile wide. It has a maximum depth of about 16 feet and lots of rocks and gravel along the shorelines. It has five islands.
Also, at an elevation of 965 feet, it is the lowest point in South Dakota. It’s also the headwaters of the Minnesota River, which runs into the Mississippi. At the north end of the lake is the Continental Divide. Another long, narrow lake, Lake Traverse, sends its waters to the north into the Red River.
Fishing action is good on Big Stone, year around. In the spring, the focus is on walleyes.
“We get a hot walleye bite right off the bat,” Artie said. “We’re a border lake, so our walleye opening is three weeks before the Minnesota season opens. That allows us to jump right on the post-spawn bite. We get good numbers of males running along the shoreline, a lot of 14- to 20-inch fish. As the season progresses into mid-May, we get the post-spawn female bite with lots of 20- to 27-inch walleyes. There’s lots of walleyes of that size in the lake right now.
“The perch bite begins about the Fourth of July,” he continued, “and it goes on through the fall and winter. In the summer the walleyes go into the weedbeds. It can be tricky to catch them, but you just have to go in there for them.
“Our fall bite last year was just awesome, as was our shore fishing,” he said. “You can do just as well from the shore in the spring and the fall as you can in a boat.
“Last fall, right down in town, guys were getting dozens of fish averaging 20-plus inches,” he continued. “They cast mostly jig and minnow and plastics. That after-dark bite is kind of a local secret. The locals go down there about 10 p.m. and get a limit of walleyes.”
Howey and I fished only a day and a half but had no trouble filling limits of this tasty panfish. While there we stayed at Rustling Elms Resort in a lakeside log cabin. The resort features cabins and campground facilities on 2,000 feet of lake shore. It is three miles north of Ortonville on Highway 7. Check out the website at rustlingelmsresort.com
Headquarters for fishermen at Big Stone is Artie’s Bait and Tackle at the junction of state Highways 7 and 12. For up-to-date fishing information, visit artiesbait.com or call 320-839-2480.
There’s do doubt about it. Howey and I will return next summer to get in on some open-water perch action. We expect company because now the secret is out. Big Stone is a perch fisherman’s destination.