Don't Pan These Fish
September 30, 2010
Unless, of course, that means putting them in a hot frying pan -- and if that's your plan, these plentiful Dakota panfish are just perfect!
Photo by Terry Jacobs
By the time June rolls around, the lakes in the Dakotas are full of some very hungry fish. You'd be hungry, too, if you'd gone through a winter both grimly cold and meager in its opportunities for feeding. For fish at this time of year, it's like a big smorgasbord suddenly laid out for them, its sole purpose being to facilitate their gorging themselves throughout the entire month.
Among the main types of fish that will be eating eagerly here will be the region's panfish. They're generally not heavily fished for, as anglers mostly pursue the superstars of Dakota fishing, walleyes. But those anglers who like a lot of fish on the end of the line -- and a lot of action at a fast, furious pace -- will find (if they don't already know) that the panfish is the ideal antidote for the boredom of that long, cold winter now past.
A variety of panfish can be found in the Dakotas, but abundance varies from lake to lake. Originally, this was mainly an ecosystem based on the predator-prey relationship between devourers -- walleyes and northern pike -- and devoured -- the yellow perch living in the natural lakes and rivers of the northern Great Plains. These days, that give and take is still the mainstay, but some other fish also make for some entertaining fishing, bluegills, crappie, bullheads and white bass among them.
Though water levels have begun dropping across the prairie, enough still remains of the booming panfish populations of the past 10 years to promise some quite serviceable fishing in 2005. What follows is a sampling of what biologists and anglers expect this June.
The prospects for panfish in South Dakota's northeastern lakes remain positive. These natural lakes are shallow and bowl-shaped, so adequately high water levels are important if the fish are to survive the cold winters and sometimes hot summers. Perch, the main panfish, are present just about everywhere.
"Overall, this northeast part of the state is the place to come for panfish," said Mark Ermer, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks regional fisheries biologist at Webster. "We have really exceptional fisheries.
"Actually, a lot of lakes in the region have had high water the last 10 years. Many were never lakes 10 or 15 years ago -- they used to be just cattail sloughs, or whatever. When you form a new lake, there are a large amount of nutrients in the system when the terrestrial vegetation is flooded. Whatever fish you put in there initially can create some incredible fishing. There are no predators at first."
The perch and other panfish still have some strong year-classes in many lakes, and fishermen are catching them right now. "Those densities that are there will go down once water starts to go down, which we are seeing now," noted Ermer. "We won't be able to maintain the high-quality fisheries that we have now, just because the lakes are dropping. So we are certainly in the 'good old days' right now."
South Drywood and Waubay lakes are two that Ermer recommends. "There is one good year-class in Waubay that is good -- 1999," he said. "They are getting old. We haven't had any significant year-classes since then. They are in the 9- to 10-inch range. They can go up to 12 in that lake. In a couple years we will get out of them, and then it will decrease quite a bit."
According to Ermer, once the perch get to the 8- to 10-inch range, they're pretty popular with panfish fans. And that's why Waubay is excellent. "A really good place to look, from our most recent test netting, is South Drywood and Waubay," he stated. "Waubay is good all summer long. That has definitely been the go-to place in the northeast region for the past three to four years."
Much of that fishing takes place during winter, when perch are being caught by ice-fishermen. Interest wanes at this time of year, but the perch are still there to be caught.
"Waubay is good all summer long," said Ermer. "That has definitely been the go-to place in the northeast region for the past three or four years."
Coolwater fish, perch will have already spawned this year. Typically, spawning occurs just after ice-out. It's strenuous for them, so they take time to recover. Right after the spawn, the fish are usually off their feed for a while, but now they're devouring as much food as is possible.
This is the high point of the summer season for increase in the natural lakes of the Dakotas. The maximum amount of sunshine is warming the lakes and providing energy for a tremendous amount of plant and insect growth, and perch and other panfish are eating a lot.
"In June they feed really heavily," Ermer remarked. "That June period can be good. They are trying to recoup from spawning. They are pretty active."
Southeastern South Dakota also offers some quite decent perch fishing at this time of year. There are many artificial lakes there, and most are still in good shape as far as water quantity goes.
The most recent test nettings turned up solid numbers of perch in Whitewood Lake. Other lakes worth your consideration, reports Todd St. Sauver, South Dakota's regional fisheries manager at Sioux Falls, are Sinai and Madison.
"Whitewood is just a big old flat 5,000-acre lake with 3 to 4 feet of water in it," he said. "They can live as long as conditions stay favorable -- if there is very little snow and the ice isn't too thick. The bulk of those fish are 10 to 12 inches long."
Fishermen trying to find the perch tend to move around on the lake, since there's no particular structure there to hold the fish in one place. "You don't have a whole lot of choice for presentation," said St. Sauver. "Madison does have some (perch) over 10 inches, but the bulk are 8 to 10 inches. Sinai is a little smaller. All of them we sampled there were under 10 inches, but there were good numbers of 8- to 10-inch fish."
Other southeastern South Dakota lakes that have turned up respectable numbers in test nettings are Brant Lake and East 81 Lake. "We have a lot of fish there (in East 81 Lake)," said St. Sauver. "But only about a third of the fish are longer than 8 inches."
East 81 is a likely place for taking either youngsters or people who'd rather reel in lots of small fish rather than just a few larger ones for fast action. "We don't normally see as good fishing this time of year," St. Sauver noted. "A lot of our best perch fishing occurs in fall. I don't know wh
y that is, but it has to be food-related somehow."
Other panfish whose showing is spottier overall but can be strong locally include bluegills and crappie. The bluegill fishery at Enemy Swim Lake has proved itself to a lot of anglers. Ermer reports good-sized fish and high catch rates.
"It has been good for years, now," he said. "There is a good population in the 8- to 10-inch range. The other two are Richmond in the western part of the region, and South Buffalo. It has good populations of large 8- to 10-inch fish."
June is prime time for bluegill fishing in the Dakotas. The fish are on their spawning nests, which creates for anglers a special obligation at this time. They can legally take the limit, but it's a good idea to release at least some bluegills so that they can maintain the size structure of big fish in the lake.
"They are pretty susceptible to harvests at this time," said Ermer. "They build nests that are easily seen by anglers. (Fishing harvest) can hurt them at this time. The large males are susceptible. Catching too many can certainly top off the size structure. We have put restrictions on -- reduced the bag in northeast South Dakota from 25 to 10 per day. We are trying to lengthen the contribution of the year-classes instead of being cropped off in one year.
"Enemy Swim has a special regulation of no culling of fish: Once you keep it, you can't high-grade it for a larger fish down the road. People were doing that to get a daily limit of those large 10-inch fish. It meant that they were going home with the larger fish. It hit the very largest fish hard."
In the southeast, the Lake Mitchell bluegill population is presently down a bit, but it's bound to swing back. Lake Alvin near Sioux Falls is up-and-coming, says St. Sauver. It's loaded with 3- to 6-inch bluegills that are still growing. Also of merit are East Vermillion Lake, and Lake Hanson near Alexandria.
Crappie are at the northern end of their range in the Dakotas. The dominant species is the black crappie, which does best in the clear natural lakes and, in some years, in the bigger reservoirs.
Richmond Lake is one of the best for crappie, with quite a few that run 10 to 12 inches. The crappie fishing is sporadically OK -- not every year's a winner.
Nearer Sioux Falls, Beaver Lake, just east of Humboldt in Minnehaha County, has a very high number of 5- to 8-inch crappie, of which only a few exceed 8 inches. Dimock Lake is smaller, but has similar densities of fish.
"We have to wait for good conditions," said Ermer. "We often wait for four, five or six years. When those environmental conditions are right, typically, you will have a very big year-class, and they must sustain it for years. They take really dramatic swings; they will be very good and then drop down to almost nothing. It is a hard fishery to manage for good crappie fishing all the time. The fish don't have the environmental conditions to maintain consistent year-class strength."
As is the case in many parts of the northern Great Plains, populations of North Dakota perch and other panfish have taken off during the high water of the past decade. By and large, game and fish departments merely put some adult perch or other panfish in a newly filled lake. Those fish reproduce, eat the huge amount of food available, and thrive in a predator-free environment for a few years.
Years in which the water situation trends positive have come somewhat less frequently in North Dakota of late. But a considerable complement of panfish still swims Devils Lake, which has continued rising, and is now at an all-time high water level.
But strangely -- or maybe just ordinarily? -- interest in Devils Lake's panfishing drops off shortly after ice-out, and anglers switch en masse to walleye and northern pike fishing. But that doesn't mean that the panfish aren't still there: They are. It's just that angler attitudes change as the water warms.
In Devils Lake are lots of perch. In fact, they're fat, healthy and abundant. "Perch are real good," said Bryston Berg, who works at Ed's Bait Shop at Devils Lake.
Berg reports that Devils Lake perch are ranging in size from 12 ounces to 2 pounds -- huge by any standard in North America. The majority of perch are caught during winter; at this time of year, the fish have been fairly abandoned by fishermen in search of more glamorous species.
What may be needed for better fishing here is more fishing -- that is, enough fishing to acquire improved knowledge on how to fish for them in Devils Lake at this time of year. This big population of fat, healthy fish is certainly being underfished during the late spring and early summer, a segment of the year when they're still being caught in other waters in North America.
Those who've been catching them in Devils Lake at this time of year often fish near the flooded trees in bays. Many of those trees are large, 12 inches in diameter. Berg says that the most common method lately involves using a slip-bobber over a hook tipped with a minnow.
"There are a few guys who try it with slip-bobbers and stuff out of boats," Berg offered. "Some days they do real well, and some days nothing. They use that to jig it up and down with a small minnow. You can do it from shore, but it is tougher."
The roads that cross the lake have rocky sides; they too can prove promising places to fish, and are very accessible as well. It's like boat fishing -- only you're on shore. You can stand on the roads in what would be the middle of the lake.
The crappie are also doing quite well at Devils Lake, ranging from a half-pound to 1 1/2 pounds. Though that's a good size, of course, they too feel little fishing pressure at this time of year.
The crappie spawn is still in progress during June, so it's a perfect time to fish for them. Crappie are notorious for their shallow-water spawning habits, especially when they can find some kind of structure such as submerged trees and branches.
"They are in shallow," said Berg. "People use electronics to find them. There are big schools. There are places where there are 2 feet of solid fish when you find them. They just don't bite a lot in the summer."
Typical crappie technique includes jigging small 1/16-ounce jigs, usually tipped with a small minnow. Chartreuse is a much-favored color; white and yellow also work well. Some Devils Lake crappie anglers like orange.
Crappie tend to suspend in schools, so it's advisable to probe different depths. And the jigging should be very slow: Crappie won't chase a fast lure, but they'll suck in a barely moving one.
Another lake with a booming crappie population is Jamestown Reservoir, often regarded as tops in the state for crappie angling, which is still quite respectable. The lake is large enough to avoid the worst of
the drastic consequences befalling smaller waters when water levels fall.
Out west, there's a demand for worthwhile panfishing, but water levels fluctuate a lot more in the western environment, and fish in some waters are struggling to survive right now. Many won't -- so it makes sense to go ahead and harvest them from marginal waters.
Much of the fishing is taking place at the healthier lakes. Odland Dam north of Beach should be good for large bluegills, says Emil Berard, North Dakota Game and Fish Department regional fisheries manager at Dickinson.
Odland Dam is one of the lakes in which the typical life cycle has played out: A low lake was filled with water, mature bluegills were put in, and the fishery took off.
"In this case, the fish that are in there are trap-and-transport," said Berard. "They go in as adults and grow like crazy on a scud forage base -- grass shrimp. Occasionally they will reproduce, but the numbers aren't high. We are netting lakes that have overpopulations. Or, in the case of Odland Dam, not too far away, we did a lot of trap-and-transport out of another reservoir that was destined to be eradicated. Wherever we have lakes with a surplus of fish, we try to reduce those numbers to help another lake."
Of course, bluegills are fun to go after with a fly rod, as they bite readily on flies. The fly should be retrieved slowly; then, the angler can anticipate a spirited fight. Bluegills are often noted for the most fight per pound of any sportfish.
Fishermen will also be going after bluegills at Sheep Creek Dam, and at Kalina Dam. Lemmon Lake near the South Dakota border is apt to be serviceable, but its water level may be in question. Indian Creek Dam near Regent may also be pretty decent.
Since summer fishing for panfish isn't exactly a tradition in North Dakota, anglers have the opportunity to tread some new ground, try new waters, and pioneer new techniques -- all part of the fun of fishing!