Ice, Snow -- And Fish Below!

The Dakotas are sure to be covered with various forms of frozen water this month. But that's no reason to ignore the marvelous fishing at these reservoirs! (January 2007)

The Black Hills' Sheridan Lake yields a lot of northern pike. This one was caught by a Rapid City resident near the point at which Spring Creek enters the lake. Another hot fish there this month: the yellow perch.
Photo by Dick Willis.

The ice gets so thick on the medium and small lakes here that you can usually drive a vehicle out on it by this time of year. I'm not recommending that -- but many do it. When the ice gets that thick, the moaning of the lakes sways to the winter wind.

In this central segment of the ice-fishing season in the Dakotas, anglers are going after bluegills, crappie, white bass and even a few channel cats. But the main winter species remain yellow perch, walleyes and northern pike -- the coolwater species that do so well in places like this, where the water is frigid for much of the year.

What makes these fish so good for the angler is that during the coldest part of the winter, they don't lose their appetites, but keep on eating -- and attacking baits. And this winter is shaping up into what should be a good ice-fishing season. Not great, perhaps -- but certainly good.

Over on the Missouri River too the fishing will prove quite serviceable -- but, in a way, more unpredictable. The bays will eventually freeze over, but the main bodies of the big reservoirs, being huge, often don't freeze over very well. With current and shifting ice, it can be dangerous to be out on them. Many parts of the Missouri River never get fished. Thus, the bulk of our winter fishing will be had at the medium and smaller lakes. In the Dakotas, many of those are natural lakes -- and biologists report that quite a few of those smaller waters have sturdy fish populations this winter.

One of the very best, Devils Lake, has been growing astonishingly for a nearly a decade and a half, having more than doubled in size, to more than 100,000 acres, since 1993, when water levels began rising. Throughout it all it has supported an improving walleye fishery, noted Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Historically, the lake has been a winter perch fishery, but recent winters have seen that fishing slow, at times even becoming downright difficult. Fortunately, Devils Lake's walleyes have really taken off, and have taken up some of the winter slack.

It's not that anglers won't catch perch in Devils Lake; that population is strong. But the past two winters' action has been inconsistent.

"It has been pretty slow," said Hiltner. "That is caused by several variables, but one thing is the densities are down. It is a combination of factors. The main reason is because they (perch) haven't had a strong hatch since 2001. There have been weaker year-classes. We saw 8-inch perch in our nets last summer, so we know there has been some reproduction -- but not to the point where we have a strong population of perch.

"We have a lot of deep water out here now. That is also a factor in making perch more difficult. Sometimes you are in 40 feet of water."

As noted, water levels in Devils Lake have risen more than 20 feet during the past 14 years. "You are dealing with a deep basin," explained Hiltner. "The perch can be anywhere, so it can be hit or miss. It's about 105,000 acres; it was 45,000 acres or so before. It has more than doubled. When it goes up 12 more feet it will empty into the Sheyenne River, which historically it has done in the past couple of thousand years."

With more water and fewer fish, perch become scarcer. Trying to make up for that, the NDGFD stocked 1.3 million perch into Devils Lake last summer -- all North Dakota "natives," too, raised in North Dakota in the Valley City Fish Hatchery and at Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery.

Biologists won't know for a while just how well this works, if at all. The fingerlings were chemically marked so that the stocked fish can be identified later when they're caught or netted. The chemical is harmless to fish and humans, but it does show up in the bones of fish when they're sent to the laboratory for analysis. Biologists will be able to come up with a percentage of the perch in the lake that came from lat summer's stocking.

"Obviously if we get the results back and 2 percent are marked, then we didn't contribute much to the perch fishery and it is mostly natural reproduction," Hiltner acknowledged. "We have stocked perch in the past, but they weren't marked with the chemical."

Yellow perch sizes have been staying fairly large. Their diet is nutritious, with a high proportion of it freshwater shrimp, which put weight on fish very quickly, but also make them less interested in anglers' baits; sometimes they seem to be full, and not really very hungry.

"Fishermen like to come up here and search and catch jumbo perch," said Hiltner. "Who doesn't? But the last two winters have been pretty tough. We have some good anglers come up here with all the electronics and sensitive rods and everything that you need to catch perch. But our perch are stuffed with the freshwater shrimp, so even on the good days it is hard to make them bite. But with that being said, one might go out and catch 20 perch in a day. It is not etched in stone."

The higher water levels probably created highly welcoming habitat for the shrimp, since they are so abundant. "Freshwater shrimp -- it is an important item," remarked Hiltner. "But (game fish) are opportunistic. If they have a good white bass hatch, they will eat that. Freshwater shrimp is an excellent backup forage. They can grow well just eating that."

That's fine for well-fed, contented perch swimming about in the lake, but not necessarily ideal for the angler intent on catching them on hook and line -- which would go a way towards explaining the uneven rewards of Devils Lake perch fishing.

And it's one of the reasons that many anglers are taking a two-pronged approach, going after perch during the middle part of the day, but chasing walleyes at morning and evening. The dawn and dusk hours usually see the main bite occurring, not only in Devils Lake but also in many other Great Plains waters.

The NDGFD stocked 1.3 million perch into Devils Lake last summer -- all North Dakota "natives," too, raised in North Dakota in the Valley City Fish Hatchery and at Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery.

The Devils Lake walleye population has been doing very well, with natural reproduction rolling along s

plendidly. Fishing success has been high, and this winter is excellent for going after the 'eyes in the cold water.

The test netting done by the NDGFD over the past year has turned up substantial numbers of walleyes of appropriately catchable size. "Many of those are between 12 and 20 inches," said Hiltner. "The 20-inchers are about 3 pounds. There is a lot of the 1 1/2- and 2-pounders -- nice fish."

And just this past summer, the test gill nettings turned up the highest numbers of walleyes in Devils Lake since 1992. "The last two summers, the walleye fishing has been excellent," Hiltner noted. "It slows down in the winter, but that is to be expected."

With the lake level rising over the last decade, more structure has become available for anglers to fish. Some of the additions were certainly unintended, such as flooded roads, culverts and ditches. Vegetation inundated by rising waters often makes for some wonderful fishing. Baitfish and far smaller organisms congregate there to escape the bigger prey fish, and walleyes and perch and other species move in to take advantage. Even in the cold of winter, the cool-water fish are hungry, and looking for a fruitful place to dine; anglers are always close behind.

"In winter they (anglers) look for structure if they can find it," said Hiltner. "We have a lot of standing trees in the lakes."

Anglers fish the edge of the trees, or sunken roadbeds; there's structure out there. Of course, walleyes aren't limited to those types alone -- they don't read the how-to books -- but those are good places to start.

The one key that everyone concentrates on is time of day. Walleyes really seem to like eating on a schedule, and the peak of the feeding takes place in early morning and late evening.

"'Walleye:30' is what they call it," said Hiltner. "The twilight periods, as a general rule, are when they bite. I've been targeting walleyes more in the last couple of years just because the perch are more difficult. I like to eat 15-inch winter walleyes."

A lot of excitement takes over on the ice when a northern pike comes along. Large numbers of them swim Devils Lake, and it's common to catch them in the winter, often in the same places and on the same rigs that yield walleyes. It's just that the northerns tend to get bigger and meaner -- just perfect for ice-fishermen.

"Northern pike are popular," stated Hiltner. "It is a good pike fishery." Pike average 4 pounds, he noted, but range from 2 to 30 pounds. "A lot of fish you see are 4 to 6 pounds. There are a lot of those out there. If a half-inch-wide mark comes in on your Vexlar, it might be an 8-pound northern."

In South Dakota, the northeastern lakes in the glacial lakes region should have marvelous ice-fishing right how. Water levels have been fine, and fish populations are doing well, reported Craig Soupir, resource biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Webster.

"The Northeast has the best rainfall in the state," he said. "Our water levels are looking pretty decent up here. Out west it isn't as good."

Extreme northern South Dakota has long been a favorite of ice-fishermen, and that part of the state should have plenty of fish this winter. Marshall, Roberts and Day counties are all in line for a worthwhile winter season. By now, the lakes should be hard enough to support lots of fishing -- even vehicles, in some cases. Of course, you'll have to check the ice safety first -- but it's likely to be just fine.

Most ice-fishing in South Dakota takes place east of the Missouri, much of it at the immemorial natural lakes, extant for centuries. The cycle of rain and drought is at present pushing them towards lower productivity, as our overall climate may be heading toward a drier stage, which must inevitably affect on the fish populations. But there's a lag time -- and right now the fishing remains pretty decent.

"Because water levels have dropped the last few years, the population has been declining in quite a few of our lakes," said Soupir. "People still fish for perch. There are still good populations, but numbers are starting to decline a little bit. It is lake-specific. Waubay has always had a high perch population, but the water levels have dropped, and perch numbers have dropped because habitat has declined."

According to Soupir, one of the best venues right now for walleyes, perch and bluegills is Lynn Lake. "Most people are fishing perch," he stated. "Walleyes have a short bite in the evening. Perch have a longer bite, so most people focus on perch."

Walleyes are almost everywhere in the topnotch winter fishing territory that is eastern South Dakota. Other top lakes this winter are Reetz, Bitter and Enemy Swim.

Waubay is perennially profitable, reported Mark Ermer, regional SDDGFP fisheries manager at Webster. "Waubay continues to be one of the best places," he said. "(Anglers) typically find some of the deepest water, over 20 feet, and use little ice jigs with spikes or wax worms."

Ermer believes that Waubay's perch are reaching old age -- at least, that many of them are. The year-classes are now 8 to 10 years old, positively geriatric by piscine standards. And those that remain are also probably fairly intelligent, and lucky, having evaded ice-fishing lures and baits for most of the decade.

"In Waubay it is an old age of fish," said Ermer. "The males are 9 inches, females 10 to 12 inches; it is the end of their life span. We are really surprised they are hanging on. When those fish go, it will slow down, no doubt, in Waubay. They were huge year-classes. Anyone who fished here in the early 2000s caught those. They have been slowly whittling them down. We have a decent fishable population in the lake, but it is not what it was four years ago. 2000 and 2001 were really good years."

Those perch are providing the tail-end of the good fishing that ice-fishermen will be taking advantage of right now. "We get them up to 12 1/2 and 13 inches," remarked Ermer. "That is the top end. They are fat fish. There is still a lot of productivity; they are full of freshwater shrimp."

The next stage of the upswing will be ushered in by more water, flooding the shorelines and starting the cycle again, most likely after deep winter snows -- which, Ermer pointed out, haven't fallen for five years.

But some of the predators are still doing well, including northern pike. One of the best places for them is Bitter Lake. Ermer recommends the south end, where the water is shallow. "Typically, an average fish is 4 to 8 pounds," said Ermer. "They aren't exceptionally big."

For a somewhat different type of ice-fishing, some South Dakota fishermen are going after bluegills this winter. One of the best spots for this: Enemy Swim Lake.

"They don't fish bluegills much, but some guys specifically target them," said Ermer. "Enemy Swim is good. The top size

has gotten smaller over the years. Lynn Lake has a low population for bluegills, but the ones you catch are really big -- usually over 10 inches."

One of the more neglected ice-fishing areas: the Black Hills. Of course, trout swim the lakes there, but anglers also make big catches of perch in Sheridan Lake, which is gorgeously scenic, surrounded by ponderosa pines. On sunny weekend days, lots of ice-fishermen get out on the ice, so to get away from it all, just try the weekdays, when only the hardcore few are out, and not many of them.

Fishermen will also pick up the occasional northern pike in Sheridan. They seem to do fairly well in the lake, as they're fat and feisty.

And all that action is going on right now -- at the height of the ice-fishing season in the Dakotas!

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