Dakota Panfish -- Big Fun In A Small Package

They may not be as glamorous as the "major" species in our states, but these little fish have their following. Here's why. (June 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

When the small spinner hit the water, it was only a matter of letting it sink a few seconds before beginning the retrieve. Then, a jolt on the rod, and another white bass was hooked and fighting.

As a fighting fish, the white bass is a puller, not a jumper, and this one was putting every muscle into the quest to get to deep water and far away from me.

It didn't succeed. The 2-pounder felt good on the end of my line.

I had waded out up to my knees in the warming water of the Missouri River. Here and there along the bank were other fishermen. You can tell it's early summer here when people start catching all kinds of fish. Some were after walleyes, of course, but a good many were picking up white bass, just as I was. June is really the best time of year to go after panfish, although the white bass perhaps just barely fits into that category.

White bass are very plentiful in the Missouri River at this time of year in the Dakotas. But June is also the prime panfishing month for many other species across the northern Great Plains. Anglers are having some of the best success of the season pursuing crappie, bluegills and even bullheads.

SOUTH DAKOTA

In South Dakota, panfish are scattered across the state, but most are in the eastern half, which, coincidentally, is where most of the people in the state live. The area has lots of natural and manmade lakes that are open to the public.

Lake Madison has been good for crappie fishing during the past two years, stated Dave Lucchesi, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks fish biologist at Sioux Falls. Although test-netting results were not as outstanding this year, fishermen at Madison will still be catching crappie.

Lucchesi also expects good crappie fishing at Beaver Lake near Humboldt. "We have a pretty good population of crappie there," he said. "The majority of them will run 8- to 10-inches long. They aren't huge, but there are good numbers. That should provide a good bite."

Yellow perch numbers are generally down in eastern South Dakota. That is the big species in the winter, although the perch aren't caught as much during the summer months.

"We are having some good fishing on Whitewood for really big perch," said Lucchesi, "but that typically does not produce in the summertime. They basically don't catch them in the summer."

One of the best perch lakes in East River will be Sinai. "It still has a pretty good population of yellow perch," said Lucchesi. "It has been pretty good for two or three years. It is just west of Volga and Brookings. Typically, the bite on Sinai starts after the Fourth of July. They fish them like you fish perch in South Dakota -- slip-bobbers and small jigs.

"West Oakwood looks like it has a fairly good population of perch, too. In late summer there are good numbers of fish in the 8- to 10-inch class, and then some over 10 inches. South Dakota production of yellow perch has been pretty poor overall since 2001. So, in general, our perch numbers are down. We just haven't had good natural reproduction. Cold springs and low water levels haven't made for good perch or walleye production."

Bluegill fishermen will want to try Mitchell Lake, where the species is on the upswing. In West River, Newell Lake has good springtime bluegill fishing.

Another good South Dakota lake for panfish is Lake Lakota, south of Canton. "It consistently has good fishing for bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass and yellow perch," said Lucchesi. "It is really our premier small impoundment.

"Size tends to be good for all those species. They get bluegills up to 9 inches, crappie pushing 10 to 12 inches, perch up to 9 to 10 inches. It is a tiny lake -- under 100 acres. You can access it with a small boat. It has quite clear water, and is kind of atypical for a southeastern South Dakota lake. It is more like what you might find in southern Iowa or Minnesota.

"It is a nice lake with camping facilities. Newton Hills State Park is right there. It's a good lake on a windy day because it is small and down in a hole. Most people who go there catch a few of something. It is one of those situations where everybody catches a few fish, typically."

Lake Henry, near Scotland, was without water until a few years ago, as the dam had been breached. That was repaired, and now the panfishing's good. "It has good largemouth bass and bluegills, and yellow perch are pretty good," said Lucchesi. "The bluegill population is coming on and they are growing pretty well."

For those who want some fast action and the potential to take a lot of weight in fish, the sturdy bullhead lives in abundance in several Dakota waters, although they're perhaps not as common now as in previous decades. State game and fish departments often manage waters to hold bullhead populations in check because the fish compete for food with popular game species. But still, the bullhead is a tough fish, and thrives anyway.

"We do have some populations of bullheads," said Lucchesi. "If you want to go after a monster bullhead, the biggest came out of West Highway 81 Lake -- basically right across the highway from East Highway 81 Lake. It has bullheads up to 16 inches long, and they are huge yellow bullheads.

Some of these fish range up to 3 pounds -- a real lunker size for bullheads.

"They were fairly abundant in our lake survey," said Lucchesi. "Basically, if you stop in the middle of the road with a Johnson silver minnow, you could fish both lakes if you didn't get hit by a bus. The state-record yellow bullhead was caught out of West Highway 81 Lake.

Small boats can be used there if you can launch them by hand. "We do have some really big bullheads in some of our lakes," said Lucchesi. "Lake Lakota has good numbers of big bullheads -- 12- to 15-inch bullheads."

The bullheads there are of the black variety, which is the main one found in South Dakota. You can tell by looking at the "barbels" (whiskers) on the underside. The barbels are black on black bullheads, and yellow on yellow bullheads. The tail on yellow bullheads is also more rounded.

"Most people see the yellow belly and say it is a yellow bullhead, but most are black bullheads," said Lucchesi.

Other

interesting lakes for the panfisherman include Staum Dam, near Huron, which has bullheads and a fair number of bluegills. The bullheads there will range from 12 to 15 inches, with a few 16-inchers.

"Wall Lake near Sioux Falls also has a decent bullhead population," said Lucchesi. "There are some in the 12- to 15-inch class.

To step up the size a bit, some anglers go after channel cats. These are actually game fish that are prized in many places. In the Dakotas, they're less sought after.

"Marindahl Lake, near Irene, has an excellent channel cat population from 1 to 7 pounds," said Lucchesi. "They average better than 2 pounds apiece. They are quite abundant, and I think most people that know how to catch cats will catch catfish there. We have OK catfish populations in a fair number of our lakes.

"Lake Mitchell is another good one for channel catfish. The Big Sioux and James River have good channel cat fishing. The farther you get toward the Missouri River, the better your chances of catching a flathead catfish. Typically, they fish the cats below dams and also at any bridge crossing where they can fish from shore. There is a contingent that does it, but you aren't going to be crowded most of the time. You can go out and find a spot and have it to yourself."

Farther to the north, Richmond Lake is good for crappie, said Brian Blackwell, SDDGFP fish biologist at Webster. "We had good natural reproduction of our crappie in 2005," he reported. "I would say our crappie numbers will be pretty good. They may be small, but they are plentiful. Reetz Lake and Lynn Lake and Cattail Kettle will be good. They may be on the small end, but in the future those lakes will be good for crappie. Right now, besides Richmond, Pickerel as well as Enemy Swim are providing quite a bit of activity for crappie anglers."

As for northeastern South Dakota, Blackwell recommends Elm Lake for bullheads. Some of the areas of the northeast have had so many bullheads that commercial fishing for them has been allowed in the past in order to reduce populations.

"In the '60s and '70s people wanted bullheads, but not now," said Blackwell. "Everybody has walleyes on the brain. But panfishing overall has definitely increased the past few years."

NORTH DAKOTA

The same panfish species are also found in North Dakota, and panfishing has been growing in popularity there, too. Actually, winter is the favorite time to go after the main species, the yellow perch. But early summer's the prime time for catching the rest: crappie, bluegills, bullheads and white bass.

In Devils Lake, the white-bass fishery is superb -- so good, indeed, that lots of anglers from other states are now traveling there to catch really large silver bass, as they are sometimes called.

"There are lots of white bass," said Randy Hiltner, fish biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at Devils Lake. "They are a panfish with muscle. They have a high catch rate, but they have some horsepower, so it is the best of both worlds."

Devils Lake's white bass range from 6 to 18 inches. "Around 15 inches or bigger is a pretty nice white bass," said Hiltner. "A white bass, when you get a 17-incher and it's full of eggs, it will be around 3 pounds -- a nice big fat female. A 15-incher is around 2 pounds or a little more."

This is trophy-sized white bass fishing by any measure in North America. The fish have really flourished in Devils Lake, and the lake has turned around from years ago, when the salinity was so high that few fish could even reproduce successfully in its waters. Of course, the lake's also much larger now; its volume has increased enormously during the past decade, which has freshened the water correspondingly.

"White bass feed on small fish as well as freshwater shrimp," said Hiltner. "They will also eat invertebrates. They are not too fussy. When you can catch them on a crankbait, they must be eating small fish, too. Their condition is excellent. It is some of the best condition in the upper Midwest. They really find the conditions in Devils Lake about optimum. They grow well, and are heavy-bodied."

Early June is usually near the peak spawning time for white bass, and the period during which they're most easily caught. They're close to shore. And they'll hit about anything when they're in a feeding frenzy. Spinners, jigs and minnows are the three main lures and baits to catch them.

"They catch them a lot of different ways," said Hiltner. "They are caught incidentally when people are casting crankbaits. And off the bank -- with spoons, twistertails and jigs."

You can catch them in the Missouri River in both Dakotas, as well. But it's Devils Lake that's getting the reputation. "It is not the most difficult fish in the world to catch," said Hiltner. "In early June they are still spawning a bit. And you can find white bass close to shore well into the heat of summer. They can suspend off the shore quite a ways, too. They are pretty good at herding a school of minnows and getting after them in 1 or 2 feet of water."

White bass are very plentiful in the Missouri River at this time of year in the Dakotas. But June is also the prime panfishing month for many other species across the northern Great Plains.

All of that is putting the fishery more in demand. "White bass have been popular up here for the last decade, at least," said Hiltner. "Before that, they were considered trash fish by a lot of people. Even the walleye types like to catch them for recreation. They may not keep any. Then there are people who come up here and target white bass and keep them for eating purposes."

The daily white bass limit is 20, with 80 in possession. "They can bring back some serious weight," said Hiltner. "If you find a nice school of white bass, you can keep entertained for hours. They will get spooked and move away. And you can catch them quite well from shore. You aren't quite as mobile, but there are miles of roadways that cut across Devils Lake. You can fish off that."

Anglers can also pick up a few crappie in Devils Lake. Some weigh 2 pounds, but their numbers aren't high, which biologists suspect is due to high predator fish numbers, which knock the crappie populations back.

And for a change of pace, Hiltner offered, anglers may want to try channel-cat fishing over on the Red Rive, the best of that being found north of Grand Forks. "There are people who target them," he said. "They grow relatively large in the Red River. It is primarily north of Grand Forks and all the way up to Winnipeg. It's not uncommon to catch channel cats up to 20 pounds, but that is not the average. Lots of people from Iowa go there. You can't have more than one channel cat more than 24 inches. We are trying to protect the big catfish."

Lakes in the Jamestown area offer good sport with good fish populations. Bluegills are plentiful in Brewer Lake, Heinrich-Martin Dam and Pheasant Lake, said Brandon Kratz, fish biologist with the NDGF

D at Jamestown.

Brewer gets lots of pressure during the summer months. But catches of 8-inch bluegills are made. The lake also has largemouth and smallmouth bass. Pheasant Lake and Heinrich-Martin Dam also have good bluegill fishing.

Trophy-sized crappie are being caught in Pipestem Reservoir as well. "They are old fish, and it isn't uncommon to catch 13-inchers in there," said Kratz. "They are down from previous years. We are hoping to see some recruitment there before they go by the wayside."

Ashtabula Reservoir also has some crappie, though not a great many of them. Some are nice-sized 10- to 13-inchers. And Ashtabula is still the place to go for bullheads.

"It is still the champion amongst bullhead lakes," said Kratz. "It is pretty much a shoo-in. It is a big 5,000-acre impoundment, so there is plenty of access for fishermen."

Anglers at Ashtabula should be able to fish a white-bass population that appears to be on the upswing. "Ashtabula has enough white bass to catch at times," said Kratz. "They can be prolific; then, as quickly as they appear, they disappear. People have had times when they had difficulty keeping them off their hooks when they were walleye fishing. There is some potential for white bass this summer. It looks like the average size was 12.5 inches, and there were a fair amount caught (in test nettings) last year. This year should see 15-inchers."

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