CASCADE, Idaho — Pioneers gave up home and family to head west for new lives and fertile land in the 1800s.
Chris and Jessie Weber, both 33, left their families and good careers for new lives and the jumbo perch of Idaho in June 2021.
More specifically, the Webers traded Poynette, Wisconsin, for new lives and careers revolving around Lake Cascade, a 47-square-mile reservoir on the North Fork of the Payette River, roughly 60 miles north of Boise.
Lake Cascade has become a bucket-list trip for perch nerds nationwide in recent years, with Wisconsin generating the nerdiest and largest army of perch pilgrims. Judging by license plates on pickups parked at entry points around the reservoir, serious perch pounders also come from Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado and Minnesota.
They come seeking the mystical 2-pound, 15-inch perch seldom seen in most North American lakes. Lake Cascade, however, is renowned for these yellow-bodied, green-barred, orange-finned fish that are shaped more like footballs than the 8- to 9-inch perch most folks know. These perch grow big by living long and prospering on little perch and bottom-burrowing “bloodworms.”
I currently hate chironomids, the red, skinny larvae of nonbiting midge flies. Well, I hate them temporarily, at least, knowing they’re a big reason perch grow so big on Lake Cascade. The reservoir’s bottom was alive with them when Mark Endris and I arrived Feb. 27, and met the Webers for dinner at the Lakefront Restaurant and Lounge on Lake Cascade’s southeastern shoreline.
The Webers warned us the fishing would be slow, given that perch were packing themselves to the gills — literally — with the bloodworms. Picture yourself gorging at Thanksgiving, going back for seconds, making room for dessert, and then finding a buffet line between you and the door. You won’t bite unless tricked or tempted by instinct.
Weber captured a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmZFev7AC7I in early February that graphically showed what we were facing. As a hooked perch nears an angler’s hole in the ice, Weber’s underwater camera recorded it puking out a cloud of chironomid larvae, temporarily clouding the clear water.
Yes, you can occasionally trigger a surfeited perch to bite. But no matter how talented you might be with a jigging rod, you won’t succeed as often as you’d like … even if you’re Chris and Jessie Weber. They’ll likely outfish old stiffs like me regularly, of course, but they know they won’t catch many perch when the reservoir bottom is coated with bloodworms.
In fact, maybe the Webers wouldn’t have left Poynette if the perch had been this tough to catch when they first fished Lake Cascade during an elk bowhunting trip in September 2020. After catching, holding and gawking at the lake’s behemoth perch, Chris Weber wanted more of that action. So much more, in fact, that he and Jessie started talking about moving there if they could find regular work.
Still, the choice wasn’t easy for the pair, who met while attending the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where Chris graduated in 2010 and Jessie in 2011. Chris had to consider his 10-year law-enforcement career as a patrol sergeant with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department. And Jessie had to weigh her options as an emergency-room nurse in Madison.
Through the fall, winter and spring of 2020-2021, Chris kept in touch with the owners of Tackle Tom’s bait shop in Cascade, and the Tamarack Resort near Donnelly in hopes of working for them as a full-time fishing guide. He was experienced at that, too, having guided fishing clients for years on Lake Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River near their home. Jessie, meanwhile, knew she could work as a traveling nurse, even though it would mean long stays away from home.
They made their courageous move nearly a year ago, and they like living and working in the mountains of west-central Idaho. Jessie knows the sacrifices of traveling for work, and Chris (firstname.lastname@example.org) understands the stress, challenges and seasonality of guiding anglers, many of whom arrive with YouTube-driven dreams and expectations of monster perch. Most of his clients understand the unpredictable nature of fishing, but most also feel disappointed when the fish don’t cooperate.
Fortunately for the Webers, they didn’t have to deal with me and Endris for clients. Chris Weber has been fully booked with clients all winter, even after warning them since mid-January that “the bite” has been slow, even poor, because of the abundant bloodworms. Instead, he evaluated possible sites I marked on my Navionics map, discussed the pros and cons of fishing shallow near creek mouths or deep in the submerged river channel, and wished us luck for our five-day stay.
True to the forewarnings, Endris and I struggled to make fish bite. I caught two eating-size perch on Day 1, Feb. 28, and Endris caught one while dodging leaks in our portable shanty during an all-day rain and drizzle. All belched bloodworms.
The next morning we stayed ashore to dry our gear, and then drove to the reservoir’s northwestern corner before lunch to fish shallower waters. We again caught three perch, though they were too small to keep.
The third morning we tracked down my friend “Dreadlocks Dave” Burgess, who drove up from Colorado to fish with his brother Andrew from Montana. They pitched their camp on the lake on Feb. 26 and lived atop the ice through March 4. We fished all day alongside the Burgesses without a bite. The brothers didn’t do much better, but they iced some rainbow trout and a handful of monster perch, including a 2.2-pound, 15-incher that was Dave’s personal best.
Endris caught a giant 14.75-inch perch the next afternoon and finished things with a 14-inch rainbow trout Friday morning before we left for home.
And me? I must wait to try again for one of Lake Cascade’s huge perch. But because Endris and his wife aren’t big fish eaters, I went home with enough fillets for one meal and a fish sandwich.
Most nonfishing vacationers return home with less.
Jessie and Chris Weber left Wisconsin a year ago to live and fish near Lake Cascade in west-central Idaho. — Chris Weber photo
Mark Endris pulls in a nearly 15-inch yellow perch from Lake Cascade in Idaho.
— Patrick Durkin photos
“Dreadlocks Dave” Burgess caught this personal-best 2.2-pound perch on March 1.