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No Joke: Ice-Fish New Mexico for Jumbo Perch

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – Most resident anglers in the “Land of Enchantment” dismiss yellow perch and ice-fishing the way Wisconsinites scorn common carp and Illinois tailgaters.


I hope New Mexico’s citizens long hold those prejudices.


Likewise, I hope anglers who live anywhere outside New Mexico keep assuming golf is the only recreation they’ll find there in winter. Granted, many folks ski New Mexico’s mountains, but they’re mostly residents and neighboring Texans. Most of the nation’s vacationing skiers head for Idaho and Colorado.


No matter anyone’s recreational interests, most folks hear “New Mexico” and assume the pretty state is all about heat, cactuses and a shared border with Mexico. I assumed the same things until my friend Karl Malcolm invited me to hunt ducks an hour from his home in Albuquerque in December 2017.


Malcolm grew up in Michigan, and majored in fishing and hunting while earning his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s why I paid attention when he said he’s never enjoyed better duck hunting than he’s found in New Mexico since moving there in December 2011. While proving that claim during our duck hunt 26 months ago, Malcolm said I’d be equally impressed with the state’s perch fishing.


He noted the best perch action occurs in May, but conceded it too often conflicts with spring turkey hunting. Therefore, he suggested I consider ice-fishing if I returned some winter.


“Ice fishing?” I asked. “In New Mexico?”

“That’s what everyone says,” Malcolm replied.


But it starts making sense when you realize much of New Mexico is mountainous, and some of its highland reservoirs are 8,000 feet above sea level. Granted, yellow perch aren’t native to New Mexico, but neither are reservoirs. Perch thrive in several artificial lakes across the state’s northern tier, as do walleyes and northern pike.


Besides, a local favorite – rainbow trout – aren’t native to New Mexico, either. They arrived in the late 1800s along with brown trout. The state’s only true native trout is the Gila and the Rio Grande cutthroat.


Not that I’d make time and divert my travels to fish for rainbows anyway, given their five-fish bag limits in most states. But I’ll go out of my way to chase 30-fish limits of jumbo perch, especially with a resident friend to guide me. When my schedule put me in Las Vegas for a trade show the week of Jan. 20, I detoured my return trip through New Mexico that weekend.


Malcolm invited me to travel north from Albuquerque with his wife, Shoshana, and their two children; and stay with two other friends – Mike Ruhl and Nate Wiese ­– and their families in a modest vacation rental home on Jan. 25 and 26. Another friend, Tom Tighe, joined us on the ice both days after driving an hour from his home.


During introductions I learned Ruhl is from Pennsylvania, Wiese from Wisconsin, and Tighe from Michigan. Malcolm said it’s not surprising that four of us grew up in Michigan and Wisconsin.


“New Mexico has all the hunting and fishing you love in the Midwest, but with less competition and more diversity of opportunity,” he said.


I praised Malcolm’s efficient summation, even if it was a bit long for a bumper sticker.


Despite our combined perch-fishing experience, we struggled to catch anything Saturday after walking about a quarter-mile onto the reservoir before dawn. Malcolm caught the first rainbow, and I reeled in the first perch, but by midafternoon we only had about eight trout and two perch between us.


The kids in our group had grown restless by then, so Ruhl and Malcolm headed ashore with their young families, leaving me, Wiese and Tighe to fish till dusk. A conservation warden then stopped to check our licenses, and Wiese pointed to a distant group fishing a mile away. He said they hadn’t budged all day, and wondered if they were catching any perch.


The warden had checked every group on the reservoir except them, so he went there next. Roughly 30 minutes later he completed his rounds and stopped by on his way ashore.


“They’re catching perch, and they’re still flopping on the ice,” he said, but reminded us many others had caught five-fish limits of trout in the opposite direction.


You can guess where we two Wisconsinites and one Escanaba native went. We pulled our lines, packed everything into two sleds, and struck off for perch. Roughly 20 minutes later we set up a polite distance from two groups of Mennonites after exchanging friendly waves.


We were too polite, in fact. After cutting several holes in the 14-inch thick ice, Wiese’s depth-finder showed 55 feet of water and no fish below. He had been aiming for 45 feet, which typically brings more action. Still, we lowered our tiny jigs and waxworms to within a foot of bottom and fished about 10 minutes. After assessing the action in clusters of nearby anglers, we moved to shallower water while keeping a respectful distance.


We caught 15 perch between us before dark, and headed in after Wiese locked in the GPS coordinates. We returned before dawn Sunday with Ruhl and Malcolm, and fished alone on the reservoir till midmorning when another friend, Justin Johnson and his son, Oliver, joined us. Ruhl and Tighe caught their 30-perch limits, while Malcolm, Wiese, Johnson and I chipped in 71 between us by 1 p.m. Almost every perch measured 9 to 10 inches.


Malcolm and I brought home 36 perch and seven trout between us, and had them filleted, washed and vacuum-sealed by 9 p.m. He estimated that 60% of the perch were females, and we saved their bulging egg sacs, or skeins, to deep-fry as appetizers. Malcolm’s kitchen scale put our combined haul at 5.723 pounds of perch fillets, 4.23 pounds of trout fillets, and 1.695 pounds of perch skeins.


I had never before eaten deep-fried skeins, but I’ll never forsake them again. My only regret once home was that I had gone all the way to New Mexico to discover a tasty hors d’oeuvre I’d been discarding for decades.


That’s yet another great lesson learned through travel, even if it came from Malcolm’s childhood in Traverse City.

Karl Malcolm of Albuquerque lands a yellow perch while ice-fishing at 8,000 feet in elevation in northern New Mexico in late January. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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