‘Filet for hours:’ Anglers brave the ice for perch catch at Rifle Gap Reservoir

Ice fishers Craig Wegner, left, and Phil Wegner brave soppy conditions in an effort to catch perch at Rifle Gap Reservoir on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Citizen Telegram

While heavy mist lingered above surrounding black-bristled peaks, ice angler Phil Wegner stood casually next to his son and began talking about his recent bout with cancer.

It was his third time battling the illness, but why talk about cancer on the ice of Rifle Gap Reservoir? It had to do with a fishing trip to Alaska.

“I just got done with chemo treatment,” Phil said, motioning to his 29-year-old son, Craig. “My wife bought me and him tickets.”

Outside temperatures ranged between a soppy 34-36 degrees Saturday morning on Rifle Gap Reservoir, now partially covered by 5-8 inches of ice. A little after 10 a.m., ducks were still swirling around on some open water toward shore, at East Rifle Creek.

Phil, 61, felt at home on the ice, though. The Michigan native who beat testicular cancer and had an organ removed to eventually win two battles with lung cancer just couldn’t get his mind off the fish they caught in Ketchikan, Alaska.

“We came back with about 100 pounds of fresh filet salmon and about 55 pounds of halibut,” Phil continued. “That lasted about a year in the freezer, and it was gone.”

Craig Wegner uses an auger to make a new fishing hole at Rifle Gap Reservoir on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Citizen Telegram

Like father, like son: Craig immediately chimed in.

“The same-day salmon, we were cutting little slices and eating it raw,” he said.

The two ice anglers had been on Rifle Gap Reservoir for about 45 minutes. No pop-up ice shelter in their section. Just a plastic bucket, a cheap lawn chair and hands pink from the cold.

Craig had caught two trout at that point. They jokingly call trout “slimers,” a common nomenclature used by many a Colorado fishermen who prefer other species taking the bait.

Perch was their main target. Phil, a construction worker who moved to Grand Junction in 1981 after Detroit’s once-famous auto industry fizzled, likes to prepare them using a recipe he picked up while working as a cook at a fish and chips restaurant back in Michigan.

Still, no such bite yet for Phil, as he periodically checked a fish finder and played with a line attached to a Swedish Pimple lure.

Unlike the past, Rifle Gap’s perch has turned into fickle creatures.

“Never have I ever seen perch so finicky in my perch-fishing days,” Phil said.

Phil Wegner waits for a bite at Rifle Gap Reservoir on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Citizen Telegram

Nearly 20 years ago, in fact, Craig fell a couple of ounces short of the state perch record here.

“Back then the smallest fish you caught was 10 inches, up to 14, 15 inches,” Phil said. “It’s just been getting worse and worse.”

Overfishing spawned by growing popularity, Phil and Craig concurred. Craig even keeps photos on his smartphone of the bountiful catches he and his father landed in the past. There were times they even filled up five-gallon buckets.

“Me and you would catch 10, 15 each,” Craig said, motioning to his father. “We’d go home and filet for hours.”

Even when Phil lost his hair, or when his lung was removed, or another time when doctors discovered a tumor next to his heart, he didn’t miss a day of work, nor did he skip out on fishing or hunting, Craig said.

“If I could be half the man he is, I’d be awesome,” Craig said with a pause. “He’s out there picking up trash or doing his regular maintenance, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re going through radiation every day and chemo once a week. You can take a little break.'”

The two have fished Rifle Gap together for many years, Craig said. And throughout these years, the shoreline has continued to recede and so has the bite. Nearby ranchers are pulling the water they need to support their operations, they acknowledged.

More moisture is needed, Phil said. And it can’t just happen overnight.

“We need more than one winter,” Phil said.

The bite has slowed at this point. But that’s OK. He appreciates the break from the bustle of Grand Junction, Phil said.

“Hear that?” he asked.

He can still enjoy the sound of peace, but it just needs more water.

An ice fisher sits on a frozen Rifle Gap Reservoir on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Citizen Telegram

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

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