Lake Mary Ronan was never supposed to be a perch fishery, but after years of bothersome numbers of puny interlopers, the western Montana lake's perch have finally grown up and it has become a destination for ice anglers.
If you want to catch consistent numbers of 10-inch spinyrays, this lake west of Flathead Lake and the little town of Proctor is a good spot. But as the perch fishery becomes established, Lake Mary Ronan's previous headliners — its kokanee salmon and rainbow trout — appear to be diminishing.
At least that's the conclusion of Selma Garrison, who operates Mountain Meadow Resort (406-849-5459) on the lake's east shore with her husband Gene. She said most winter anglers this year have been arriving to fish for perch.
The other species are a happy addition, but they're scarce.
"At night we'll see some lights over on the southeast side of the lake, and those are probably salmon fishermen, but you don't hear about them like you used to," said Garrison.
"If people do come for salmon, though, tell them to fish at night. That's the best way to go for numbers of fish."
The prescription for perch is a lot simpler. Come in the morning, suspend a baited jig just off the bottom and leave in the afternoon with a mess of filets of the fish that were illegally stocked here more than a decade ago.
"Perch fishing has been good," said Garrison.
"It's consistent enough that people aren't moving around a lot. They will fish from the same two or three holes all day and get anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred fish."
Jerk a perch
The lake is in fine fishing shape right now. In mid-January anglers reported good-quality ice anywhere from 5 to 11 inches thick.
The most consistent perch spot has been the lake's eastern shore, fishing near the bottom in about 25 to 28 feet of water. But that localized success is probably because that eastern shoreline is the most easily accessed by anglers coming to the lake from Proctor and U.S. Highway 97.
You'll find other productive perch spots on the northern lobe of the lake, out from Lake Mary Lodge & Resort (406-849-5483) and even around to the remote western shore.
As with perch fishing anywhere, move around until you find some active fish, then set up on them until the bite tapers off. You may also want to move if you're catching only small fish, perch in the 5 to 7-inch class.
Garrison said this year's keeper fish are going a solid 10 inches, with a good number of 8-inchers and a few remarkable perch out to 12 and even 13 inches.
"Perch are really fat this year," said Garrison.
"They're overall in a bigger category than last year. People have been doing well just 100 to 150 yards out from our place."
Catching them is as easy as it sounds: Just bait a simple, colorful jig with a piece of nightcrawler, a wax worm or a maggot, lower the offering to the bottom and then bring your hook up about three turns of your reel.
The secret to consistent action, of course, is modifying this simple recipe to match conditions or the mood of the fish the day you're out there.
Garrison said pink, yellow, black-and-white and chartreuse or green jigs are all working on Mary Ronan.
While a simple one-sixty-fourths-ounce leadhead will catch fish, try mixing up your hardware with a variety of small hair jigs, ice flies and perch-specific micro jigs.
Some anglers are doing well by tying their jig about 18 inches below a flashy spoon. Others are ramping their catch rates by fishing with a slip bobber that better registers light bites than their rod tip does.
The perch bite is generally best from early morning through early afternoon. Garrison said the perch action tapers off toward evening and it's not worth fishing past sunset.
About the time the perch action fades, though, the salmon action can pick up. Besides the March 1 closure, another relic of Lake Mary Ronan's former salmon prowess exists: You have to quit fishing at midnight and can't start again until 3 a.m. That's because in the heyday of kokanee fishing, anglers would fish all night and take home two day's worth of limits.
Catch rates don't always justify that rule now, but it is an indication of the best time to fish Mary Ronan if you're serious about kokanee.
Bring a submersible light. These 12 to 15-inch salmon will be wherever there is plankton and freshwater shrimp, and you can draw the forage to your hole with the light.
Jigging kokanee is similar to fishing for perch, except you don't bump the bottom. Instead, find fish suspended over deeper water, generally about 20 feet deep over a 40-foot bottom.
Maggots are a productive bait, but so is corn. A local favorite is white shoe-peg corn. Some anglers even combine maggots and corn on their jig.
The flasher-and-jig combo is essential for salmon. Use a bright green, orange or red on one side of your flasher, silver or hammered nickel on the other.
Some anglers swear by luminescent jigs, others claim it doesn't matter as long as your bait is fresh.
Perch trump rainbows
Lake Mary Ronan once had a strong rainbow bite through the ice, but Garrison said few anglers report hooking rainbows.
"We'll have people drive up here to fish for salmon and trout, but then they get into the perch and have such a good time that they aren't upset that they didn't catch what they were after," said Garrison.
"Just this weekend we had a group from Missoula that caught 170 perch in a day. They were pretty happy."
LMR derby Feb. 1
You can combine fast fishing with a shot at some dandy prizes by fishing Lake Mary Ronan on Feb. 18. That's the date of the annual free ice fishing derby sponsored by Snappy Sport Senter in Kalispell and Ronan Sports & Western in Ronan. Call Snappy's (406-257-7525) for more details on the event, which draws as many as 500 anglers.
"Just about everybody leaves with some prize or another," said Selma Garrison at Mountain Meadow Resort on the lake's east shore.
"They spend about two hours after the fishing's over just giving out prizes."
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