CANYON FERRY — Shink-shink-shink-shink-shink. A caravan of four-wheelers, pickup trucks, Subarus and golf carts (yes, golf carts) snakes its way slowly across the ice. Their wheels are chained for traction, and the blue-black ice beneath them is reassuringly thick but cloudy and shot through with air bubbles and pressure cracks.
It’s cold. The week of balmy 40-degree weather and sunny days blew out of town overnight, a weekend winter storm full of snow and cold and misery nipping at its heels.
In spite of the weather, 316 anglers (278 adults, 38 kids) turned up Saturday morning at the Silos Campground to register for the Broadwater County Lions Club-sponsored Perch Derby. That’s down slightly from the 400-plus who fished in last year’s tournament — and the weather then was even worse.
“It’s a little chilly this morning, but that’s what ice fisherman do,” says Lions Club Perch Derby committee-member Jim Wilson.
The motley caravan of vehicles disperses up around Hole-in-the-Wall, a small cave on the western shore of the lake. Even though it caved in sometime in the last five years, it still retains its nickname and lives on as a landmark for local fishermen.
A widespread settlement of ice houses, camp chairs and coolers springs up on the ice.
The groups of competitors are scattered far enough away from each other to prevent neighbors from spying on secret bait, but close enough to yell catch tallies back and forth.
On a southeastern edge of the cluster, an ice house constructed from sheets of corrugated steel sits next to two four-wheelers. All are emblazoned with the distinctive green and black “WALLEYE FREAK” logo.
Inside, Idaho-native and “WALLEYE FREAK” creator Jimmy Carter warms his hands near a blissfully hot wood stove and jiggles the pole he has dangling over a hole drilled through one corner of the ice house.
The “WALLEYE FREAK” logo has become something of a promotional brand for Canyon Ferry fisherman — and has even made its way onto national televised fishing competitions via hats, stickers and T-shirts.
When asked about the origins of the logo, Carter grins and says, “I needed a name for my boat.”
“I grew up fishing trout,” Carter says. “I never fished a walleye until I moved here 24 years ago. And then, once I started, I just … I’m just an avid walleye fisherman. And perch. I like that meat — I like the white meat.
“The perch this year have been real big — real fatty. I haven’t been catching a lot of them, but when I do catch ’em, four or five of ’em will feed me and my girlfriend. I’ve got my granddaughter down here right now and I’m hoping to catch a couple to feed her — she’s never eaten a perch.”
Bill Fulton, a fisherman from Butte, says the allure of good perch fishing draws him up to Canyon Ferry almost every weekend.
“That’s all I fish for is perch. You fillet ’em and deep fry ’em. Like eatin’ popcorn.”
Fishing on the first day of the tournament ended at 2 in the afternoon — competitors needed to be in line at the weigh-in station at the Silos by 2:30 or risk disqualification.
The parking lot was impassable by 1:30 and the store quickly filled with bodies and the faintly sweet, mingled scents of beer and fish. The day’s catch — some frozen solid, some still flapping and rustling weakly in plastic bags and buckets — was carried in and weighed by Lions Club officials.
Townsend’s Lyn Saltzman carried the day with a 1.22-pound fish and went home $700 wealthier. The Derby paid out to the top nine adult winners (a total of $1,390) and top five youth winners ($160 in total prizes). All competitors were also entered to win assorted door prizes.
Sunday, the day of the team competition, dawned warmer. Patches of blue sky opened up and the sun burned the low-hanging fog off the frozen lake in the morning. Fat, slow-moving snowflakes fell from the remaining clouds.
Eighteen teams registered that morning, but of those who returned to the scales at 1 p.m. to weigh in their hauls, about half laughingly held up empty hands and claimed a catch too small to be counted.
A bucket of 31 green and gold perch tipped the scales at 18.48 pounds — well past the 7.96-pound mark set by the second place team. The four-man team from Belgrade, captained by Robert Mott, pocketed checks totaling $960.
When asked about the team’s strategy, Mott said, “Pre-fish. Cover lots of depths, lots of water.”
“And don’t forget your lucky charm!” added team spotter Brandi Hulse, pointing at herself.
The second place team, from Townsend, took home $576, while the third place team, from Bozeman, won $384.
After wrapping up the announcement of winners, derby chairman Mike Colbert added, “And to everybody else — thanks, losers!”
The assembled crowd laughed good naturedly and Colbert continued, “No, in all seriousness, thanks. This is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and it’s all going towards very important programs.”
Money raised will go toward causes both local, like the Montana Boys’ State and Girls’ State programs, and international, such as several Haiti relief organizations.