ON LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH - For the cold-weather angler, winter fishing's big payoff is peering into a crystalline cylinder of clear water while ice creaks loudly ...

And fish bite.

With luck, as with fishing in other seasons, in winter a rhythm sooner or later commands an order to things.

On Wednesday on this huge lake, through about 17 inches of hard water, that order was: Bite. Wait. Bite. Wait.

Set the hook.

All while the shifting ice keened its winter's song.

The outing's object was to catch a mess o' perch, and Winnibigoshish -- Winnie -- has them. As important this winter, Winnie has safe ice across much of the lake, including the portion on its west side onto which I guided my truck Wednesday morning, slipping and sliding a bit over the largely snowless surface.

Perch in winter can be found shallow, say 6 to 10 feet, or deeper, up to 20 feet or thereabouts. This is as true on Winnie as it is on Leech Lake or Mille Lacs, two other perch hotspots.

Sometimes bigger specimens can be found in the deeper water. But as peeping toms know, visuals excite, and while over shallow water, winter anglers can see perch approach their minnow-tipped spoons, and watch them take the bait.

"This one big enough?"

It was, I nodded, and my oldest son, Trevor, excised an 8-inch perch from a small treble hook that swung from his hammered silver spoon.

One more in the bag.

I had bumped into Craig Brown, owner with his wife, Paige, of McArdle's Resort on Winnie, at the St. Paul Sportshow last weekend, and asked him how the perch action was on his lake this winter.

"Real good," he said.

Which was reason enough for a quick foray north. With a day to spare before heading back to college, Trevor agreed to ride shotgun, adding that in any event angling for perch was a nobler cause than any three-credit class.

"The limit's 20 apiece," I said. "Half that number would be a reasonable goal."

Setting up in one of McArdle's rental fish houses, we dropped our lines into 8 feet of water. Use of a flasher -- depth finder -- wasn't necessary, Craig had advised.

"You can look right down and watch them take your bait," he said.

Not many years ago, excitement of this kind attracted throngs of Wisconsin residents to Winnie. Long schooled on the culinary attributes of perch, and as good as anyone at catching them, the Packer faithful couldn't resist the allure of 100-perch limits that in retrospect seem wildly excessive.

That limit in 2000 was cut to 20 daily and 50 in possession, a prelude to the 20 daily and 40 in possession that now rules.

"Some Wisconsin residents were disappointed with the change and didn't come back," said Department of Natural Resources large lake specialist Gerry Albert of Grand Rapids.

"But other anglers, mainly from Minnesota, replaced them."

A 1987-88 DNR creel survey found that 53 percent of Winnie's winter perch anglers hailed from Wisconsin, while 45 percent came from Minnesota.

By 2007-08, the Wisconsin percentage dropped to 27 percent, while Minnesota anglers represented 65 percent.

Not only has the quantity of Winnie's perch historically attracted so many anglers from so far, fish quality -- measured in inches -- also has been a factor.

At one time, fully 30 percent of Winnie's perch were 9 inches or longer.

Today that figure is closer to 20 percent -- still outstanding -- and good enough to draw to the rental house next to ours three Nebraskans who were also busy Wednesday catching a perch feast.

"We love Minnesota," said Don Timm, who farms near Lyon, Neb. Friend "Butch" Forsberg, a retired school superintendent from Omaha, and Jan O'Neil of Lincoln agreed.

"We make trips up here in winter and summer," Butch said.

As he spoke, the tip of Don's rod jumped like grease in a hot pan, and he set the hook.

The perch he reeled in was perhaps 8 inches, good enough to air-mail into a bucket whose bottom already was covered with fish.

"Venison stick?" Butch offered as Trevor and I chatted with the out-of-staters about deer, turkey and duck hunting in Nebraska.

"Deer and turkeys? We got 'em," Don said. "And Jan hunts ducks on the Platte."

As he spoke, Don's rod tip bounced again.

So it went.

Back in our house, peering again through icy cylinders into shallow water, Trevor and I resettled into the day's rhythm.

Bite. Wait. Bite. Wait.

Set the hook.

Midafternoon approached, a snow squall swirled across the lake, and everything was suddenly white.

With a mess o' perch in hand, we packed it in and headed for shore.

Ahead lay a feast, while behind, still groaning its sweet winter music, lay miles and miles of ice.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com