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outdoors Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
(320) 235-6769 customer support
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

DEER RIVER -- If you take Jerry Zahl's words at face value, you might believe that retirement is work.

"I don't get any days off," Zahl, 67, of Grand Rapids said recently as he stood over a hole through Lake Winnie's 30 inches of ice, waiting for a hungry perch to take his bait. "All I do is check out the lake. We were up four days last week, one day so far this week."

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But this week was only two days old.

Searching for hungry perch on Winnie has become a second -- if unpaid -- career for Zahl and fellow retiree Jim Dingmann, 68, also of Grand Rapids.

High Banks Resort owner Rick Leonhardt gives the two free use of his ice roads in exchange for fishing reports from different areas across the large lake.

"When Rick bought the resort, he didn't have time to go fishing," Zahl said. "We were fishing all the time anyway, so we worked out a deal. Besides that, he has Bloody Marys on tap."

Truck loaded, Dingmann and Zahl led the way onto the lake on a recent Monday morning, followed by Neal King and Duane Vonch, retired friends from the Rochester area. Earlier this winter deep snow and slush made traveling off the plowed ice roads difficult if not impossible. But February's warm weather and rain -- followed by lower temperatures -- created conditions ideal for nearly unfettered access across the lake -- just in time for Leonhardt's busiest time of the winter.

"We've been on fire the past two weeks," he said.

Four-and-a-half miles out on the lake Zahl pulled off the ice road and headed for an undistinguished spot of crusted snow and ice over 26 feet of water 1.5 miles away.

"We got some 12 inchers here last week," Zahl said.

Holes drilled and cleared, the four began testing the waters with fish finders and various jigs -- some baited with whole fathead minnows, others with only a tail or head.

"I never believed that, just fishing with heads, but it works," King said.

The fish finders and jigs both quickly indicated the presence of fish. Within minutes the first perch was on the ice.

"That will do," King said of the 9-incher.

"Nine is our cut-off -- but it depends on how hungry we are," Dingmann said.

An average-size perch on Winnie is nine inches.

"If you catch a 12-inch perch, that's a nice perch," Leonhardt said later. "Stories aside, I've never seen a 14-inch perch. I don't think they exist."

While they'd hardly toss 12-inch perch back, Dingmann and King both praised male perch in the 9-inch range, which, they said, have just as much meat as larger females.

"And for table fare, there's nothing better," King said. "If you can take 9-inch fish all day, there's not a fisherman that wouldn't be all smiles."

Winnie has long been renowned as a premiere perch lake. King, 73, first came to the lake on a family trip 71 years ago. He bought a cabin on Winnie's shores 55 years ago.

"We've seen a lot of changes in this lake over the years," he said. "When I first started coming, the guys from Wisconsin would go home with a pickup truck box half full (of perch). Oh, did they whine when it went to 100."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources established a daily limit of 100 perch in 1979. The daily limit dropped to 20 in 2000. King doesn't believe that perch fishing is any worse or better now that the daily limit is merely 20.

"I can send people out in a general direction and they'll still catch fish," Leonhardt said. "Winnie still has that ability."

When they arrived on the lake, the weather -- despite a temperature near zero -- was pleasant. The sun shone brightly in a clear sky. Not the slightest breeze blew. And perch bit regularly.

By late morning, however, a breeze sprung up and scattered clouds passed between them and the warming sun. Dingmann set up his portable shelter, while the others moved to the lee of their trucks or turned their backs to the breeze. Fishing slowed down. But the foursome didn't give up, continuing to pull in or lose the occasional perch.

"Win a few, lose a few," Dingmann said, pulling up a hook unbaited by a perch. "They say fish have a brain the size of a pea, but they outsmart me every time."

A dozen perch lying on the ice belied that.

By mid-afternoon, the separate piles of perch had grown to an average of 16 fish per angler, and the four decided it was time to return to High Banks to clean their catch, warm up and swap fishing tales at the bar.

Plugging in his electric fillet knife (he's worn out three since he retired) in High Banks' fish cleaning room, Zahl shared more perch fishing wisdom.

"The trick," he said, "is to clean the little ones first, so if anyone comes in they only see the big ones."

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