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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s Perch Obsession Goes Beyond the Border

Folks who debate their eating preferences for crappies, bluegills, walleyes, yellow perch and northern pike must be rich or living leisurely. How else would people have time to nitpick such dietary wealth?

Welcome to the upper Great Lakes states, where cheeseheads, squareheads and Yoopers catch and eat so many high-end fish species that we often overlook trout and salmon when debating the “good-eaters.”

Talk about a cornucopia, the horn of plenty, an embarrassment of riches, too much of a good thing, and every other trite expression about inherited affluence.

To be fair, Yoopers aren’t as insufferable about their fish-eating options as Wisconsinites and Minnesotans. I mean, few people accuse Yoopers of raiding the neighbor’s lakes of their favorite fish. That’s probably because there aren’t enough of them to crowd a Hurley tavern, let alone a sprawling lake.

But Gophers and Badgers? They actually argue perch vs. crappies like gear-heads debate Fords vs. Chevys. Even so, when Minnesotans invade Wisconsin to chase crappies, cheeseheads usually suffer them sympathetically. After all, Minnesotans are from the land of 10,000 lakes and 5,000 fish, right?

That’s a joke. We know better.

We can’t in good conscience condemn invading Minnesotans when we’re notorious for pursuing perch across state lines all the way to the Pacific. Miners and prospectors might have long ago removed the West’s gold and silver, but they seemingly swapped those precious metals for yellow perch, which are thriving in lakes, sloughs, potholes and reservoirs from the Dakotas, to New Mexico, to Seattle.

Still, Wisconsinites haven’t forsaken Minnesota’s perch. Cheeseheads have long been so obsessed with the walleye’s smaller cousin that Minnesota in 2000 slashed its daily bag and possession limits for perch to 20/40 to prevent Wisconsinites from overfishing Lake Winnibigoshish and other fabled perch factories.

No, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources didn’t publicly blame Wisconsin, but they were just being diplomatic. If you sidle up to a Minnesota DNR biologist or conservation warden, flash photos of two ice-anglers—one in Packer garb, one in Viking—and ask which guy perch fear most, they’ll impatiently tap the green-and-gold mug shot.

Pfft! Don’t waste their time with the obvious.

Wisconsinites so deeply and universally love perch that we’re shocked to hear Minnesotans typically prefer crappies. Well, at least I was shocked when my friend Walt Larsen of St. Paul called me “a typical cheesehead” when I ranked perch over crappies. To underscore my conviction, four of us were cleaning 30-some crappies at the time.

Yes, we could cloud things by including walleyes in this debate, but let’s stick to what divides us. While pondering this border battle last week after catching some perch near Eau Claire, I asked folks on Instagram and Facebook to weigh in. Of the scores providing usable answers, 63% said they preferred perch, 15% preferred crappies, 7% couldn’t decide between perch and bluegills, and 15% wrote in other fish.

Note: Even though Tommy Eidson wrote, “Crappies all day, every day; twice on Sunday;” and Ryan Wuethrich wrote, “Perch all day and twice Sunday,” I only recorded one vote each.

Other noteworthy responses include:

-- “Crappies can be fun through the ice, but unless they’re cooked like a potato chip, they make better cat food.”

-- “I’ve been in Minnesota for years. Everyone here calls anything in the sunfish family ‘sunnies,’ and I find that term annoying.”

-- “Perch have too many worms.”

-- “Who cares what people from Minnesota think?”

Granted, my IG/FB poll wasn’t scientific. Few online surveys are, given that participants aren’t randomly selected. Plus, I’m a cheesehead and revealed my perch preference when inviting responses. That likely explains why most participants were perch-loving Wisconsinites.

Even so, good luck proving my poll wrong. Recent surveys by the Wisconsin and Minnesota DNRs put crappies ahead of perch for catch rates, harvest numbers, and time invested fishing. Neither agency, however, assessed their anglers’ passions for specific fish. They didn’t ask, for example, which fish they most enjoy eating, or which they’d target forever more if forced to choose.

Still, some numbers in both states’ surveys indicate a passion for perch. A 2018 Minnesota survey found only 19% of anglers fished for perch at least one day the previous year, but those anglers targeted perch 13 days on average. In contrast, even though three times as many anglers (59%) fished for crappies at least one day, they targeted crappies only three more days on average (16) than did perch anglers.

Meanwhile, a 2017 Wisconsin survey showed bluegills far atop the leader board for all species—including walleyes—in catch and harvest totals, with crappies next and perch third. And even though Wisconsin’s annual crappie harvest exceeded the perch harvest, 2.56 million to 1.8 million, anglers caught more perch than crappies from October through March, and kept more perch than crappies in October and November.

Jeff Reed, a fisheries research scientist in Glenwood, Minnesota, with the DNR the past 30 years, grew up fishing perch and walleyes in Winneconne. While attending the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh just 12 miles from home, Reed worked part-time for the Wisconsin DNR. He agrees Minnesotans generally prefer crappies over perch, and attributes that preference to their “more practical, home-body” sensibilities.

“I think Wisconsin folks are generally perch-obsessed,” Reed said. “Many of them don’t hesitate to jump into their truck with a friend or two, and drive hundreds of miles to catch perch. Just like fish and wildlife, they don’t stop at state or county borders.

“I don’t see that obsession with Minnesotans,” Reed continued. “The Sunday-morning, after-Mass thing in southern Minnesota is for the husband and wife to fill their 5-gallon buckets with 8-inch bullheads from a lake near home, and only complain if it takes all day.”

Bullheads, huh? There they go again, those Minnesotans; moving the goalposts and changing the topic to highlight our shortcomings. Wisconsin’s recent fishing surveys don’t even mention bullheads.

But I’ll bet Wisconsin's bullheads taste better.

Wisconsin anglers’ obsession with yellow perch stretches from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, but Minnesotans’ obsessions typically stay closer to home.

— Patrick Durkin photo

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