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You hear a great deal about some of Maine’s most popular outdoor traditions – opening day of deer season, the first day of trout season – and most sportsmen make it a point to participate in one way or another before the season runs out. Not everyone will fish (or even hunt) on opening day, but sooner or later they dust off the .30-30 or trout rod and give it a try.
One of the more interesting Maine traditions takes place at this time of year when old-time Mainers set aside a afternoon to catch what is referred to as “a feed of perch.” When I first heard this term (sometime back in the 1970s), I assumed that it meant a plateful of fresh fried perch, and to a degree I was right . . . a small degree! The truth is that “a feed of perch” probably ends up taking more time, more energy and requires more work than a hard day in the deer woods!
My first trip in pursuit of perch was with my old woodcutting partner, Carleton Reynolds. We rarely missed a day behind the chainsaw (not because we were great workers but because, like everyone else in those days, we simply could not afford it!), but each July 4 Carleton would declare that it was time for a “feed of perch,” and, not knowing any better, I was anxious to join him.
Preparations for our perch fest began the instant Carleton decided to go. Only then would we begin to look for the boat (which leaked), the paddles (which were cracked) and the anchor (which had no rope). His fishing gear was in a tangled pile right where he had left it at the end of the last year’s perch quest, except he couldn’t remember where that was, so I had to search the dingy confines of the crawl space under his house to find enough rods, reels and line to satisfy our needs. The stuff was rusted, tangled, dirty and moldy, but I managed to build two serviceable outfits out of the mess.
I was charged with digging enough bait for the day (“Fill that bucket with worms,” Carleton said, which should have given me the first clue to what I was in for) while Mina, Carleton’s wife, filled a cooler with sandwiches, sodas and Ring Dings. The last thing to go onto the flat bed of Carleton’s 1949 Ford woods truck was a rusted, leaky trashcan.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said with a grin.
We headed for the nearest perch pond, which happened to be Pleasant Pond in Orneville, a secluded little lake that was nearly impossible to get to on a good day, rumbling over washed-out roads that looked worse going in than they did going out.
There were a couple of old trailers on the shore of the pond, but it was obvious that no one had been there in months – probably not since deer season. Still, the pond looked inviting, and the surface was dotted with the dimples of rising fish, so we hurriedly unloaded the boat and our gear and paddled, creakily and leaking like a sieve, into the middle of the pond.
As soon as we dropped anchor, Carleton placed the rusted trashcan in the middle of the boat and uttered the ominous words, “We’ll quit as soon as the can is full of perch.”
At first, I took the statement as a challenge that could be met. After a (very) few minutes of hot action, I thought we might have a chance, but as the afternoon wore on, the bait ran out and the contents of the cooler dwindled to the last of the Ring Dings, I began to have my doubts. It was near dark and we were still only halfway to our goal!
I began to suggest that maybe half a trashcan of perch was better than nothing, but Carleton just grinned and said we couldn’t quit with only half a feed of perch.
Just about dark the fish really began to hit, and though we ran out of worms and ended up using small pieces of cut perch for bait, Carleton finally declared that we had our “feed” somewhere around two hours later.
Never mind that we didn’t get home till close to midnight, or that we lost the boat off the truck halfway out and had to go back for it. Never mind that we had to get back to work early the next morning or that we’d have to unload the boat and all our gear before we could cut the first stick of wood. What I didn’t expect, once we got back to Carleton’s house, was that we were going to have to clean all those fish!
As soon as we arrived, Mina cleaned everything off the kitchen table. Carleton and I lugged the trashcan full of fish inside and, for the next three hours, we filleted perch. Carleton told old jokes and drank Pepsi while cutting up two perch to my one, and Mina washed and wrapped the little fillets in Saran Wrap as fast as she could go. The trashcan seemed to stay eternally full no matter how many fish I filleted, but sometime past midnight we got down to the last fish.
“Stay and have some perch with us,” Carleton said, and so, while Mina fried perch and boiled fresh peas and potatoes, Carleton and I dragged the trashcan (now full of former perch parts) out to the garden to till under for his fall crop of turnips and greens.
I didn’t get home till past 2 a.m., and spent the better part of an hour trying to clean perch pieces off my clothes, my skin and my hair. We had to be in the woods at 6 a.m. to make our quota of two cords of softwood pulp by noon, and I knew Carleton wouldn’t be taking another day off – after all, we’d just taken a whole day off to fish for perch!
I have been on several other perch-fishing trips since then, and, sad to say, they are all the same. You fish all day, you fillet all night, and somewhere toward the end you actually sink your teeth into a “feed of perch.” Is it worth it? Hmmmm...try it once and decide for yourself!
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