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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Yellow Perch, Not Elk, Spur a September Return to Idaho

When late August arrives and folks talk of autumn’s fast-approaching hunting seasons, friends often ask if I’m returning to Idaho to bowhunt elk.

I typically twist a line from my friend Tom Heberlein and say, “I only hunt elk when I’m alone or with somebody.”

In other words, “Pfft! of course I'm going.”

I haven’t missed my do-it-yourself Idaho elk hunt since settling on a site in the rugged Targhee-Caribou National Forest in 2006. I usually schedule the 1,300-mile drive so I’m settled into my elk camp a few days before Labor Day weekend.

That streak ended earlier this year after Idaho reduced its quota for nonresident elk hunters, jacked up the license price about 50%, and still sold every tag for my preferred zone before I reached the online sales counter.

While pouting about the injustice, I proposed Plan B to my wife, Penny.

“How about I check with Chris Weber in Cascade, Idaho, to see if he can take you and me fishing for jumbo perch? We can book a flight to Boise, rent a car, drive up there, and catch 300 pounds of yellow perch on Lake Cascade to make up for the elk.”

I exaggerate, of course. Lake Cascade is renowned for jumbo perch, and there’s no bag limit on them, so it’s theoretically possible to render hundreds of pounds of great-tasting fillets from several days of fishing.

Trouble is, even though I’m gluttonous about perch fillets, I’m also not that skilled and efficient of a fisherman. Plus, I own only one good soft-side cooler. And, I’m too cheap to buy another packable cooler or pay the airline’s excess baggage fees if we somehow caught an elk’s worth of perch.

Still, Penny said she’d go, and Weber and his wife, Jessie, said they’d welcome us. Therefore, they weren’t surprised Sept. 3 when they arrived home around dinner time to find their pug and yellow Labrador serving us beer and chips on their patio. The dogs, Carlos and Sancho, had charged outside when we knocked, and seemed genuinely happy to see us.

Sancho, the Labrador, has such intelligent eyes that I half-expected him to ask how our trip had gone, and then fill us in on the forest fire and smoke across the nearby lake. The dog left that update to the Webers, who said the Four Corners Fire began Aug. 13 with a lightning strike. It then scorched over 13,500 acres during the next three weeks, and firefighters have so far contained 34% of its perimeter.

Meanwhile, hazy curtains of smoke hang over Cascade and its namesake lake, obscuring nearby mountain ranges one minute and hiding them entirely the next. Jessie said the smoke generally clears overnight and returns by midday, but its aroma seldom disappears unless you stay indoors.

After updating us on the fire, Chris Weber assured us we’d have no trouble fishing. He said we could troll the lake for rainbow trout or drop hooked worms onto rocky underwater points for perch.

“The fishing has been steady,” he said. “We can set some traps for crayfish, too.”

Weber, formerly a patrol sergeant with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department; and Jessie, a traveling emergency-room nurse; moved to Cascade from Wisconsin in 2021 after Chris realized he could work as a full-time fishing guide. He works for Tackle Tom’s bait shop in Cascade and the Tamarack Resort near Donnelly, regularly booking perch nerds yearning to catch Lake Cascade’s jumbo perch, which commonly exceed 14 inches.

Although the Idaho Fish and Game Department sets no size or bag limit on perch, Weber suggests throwing back anything 10.5 inches and smaller. Yeah, he knows that’s a keeper in Wisconsin, but 12- and 13-inchers are standard on Lake Cascade, and the Webers’ personal best measured 17 inches.

Still, perch aren’t required to bite, which my friend Mark Endris and I learned on Lake Cascade while icefishing in early March. We drove home with six perch after fishing dawn-to-dusk for five days. We attributed the poor action to a huge hatch of bottom-burrowing “bloodworms,” i.e., chironomids, the red, skinny larvae of nonbiting midge flies. Perch were gorging on them during that trip and had no reason to bite the baits we jigged in front of their faces.

Weber thinks that bloodworm crop was somewhat of a fluke and bad timing, and encouraged me to return in May, June or September. I’m glad I did. Shortly after hitting the water at dawn on Sept. 4, Penny and I corroborated his word. First, I landed a 13-inch perch and then Penny caught one an inch longer. We also caught several respectable smallmouths, a 20-plus-inch rainbow trout, and three largescale suckers, otherwise known as Catostomus macrocheilus.

Weber grew excited when Jessie worked the largest sucker toward the boat. “The state record is 25 inches, and that one’s real close,” he said while grabbing the net. After a final line-ripping run, the sucker slid within reach of Weber’s net.

After unhooking the big fish and laying it on a ruler, Weber announced, “23 inches. Dang. No state record today!”

With the winds calm and temperatures pushing past 85 degrees around noon, we decided to head in, clean Jessie’s trout and our combined 33 perch, and relax a few hours. Besides, the smoke had returned, as had the holiday-weekend tubers, water-skiers and wakeboarders.

I’m still missing elk camp and the hair-raising bugles of ornery bulls, but with four days left to fish, I’m feeling good about this return trip to Idaho.

Penny and Pat Durkin show their double on yellow perch that they landed seconds apart on Idaho’s Lake Cascade on Sept. 4. — Patrick Durkin photos

Smoke from Idaho’s Four Corners Forest fire on the southwest corner of Lake Cascade floats across the reservoir at sunset on Sept. 4.

Guide Chris Weber shows Penny Durkin the yellow perch she landed shortly after dawn on Lake Cascade in Idaho.

The livewell in Chris Weber’s boat neared capacity with over 30 yellow perch, whose distinctive orange fins stand out against their white bellies.

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