Iced-Up 'Eyes

If you're serious about catching walleyes in the Dakotas this month, then check out one or more of these hardwater hotspots. (January 2009)

Huron resident Robert Simpson caught this 3-pound chunk below Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River in South Dakota.
Photo by R.A. Simpson.

Hunting seasons are winding up for the most part, the Christmas holidays and the New Year have come and gone, and football season is on its last legs.

What's a Dakota outdoorsman to do during the doldrums of winter, when cabin fever deepens with every log put on the woodstove?

Simple: Drag out the Thinsulate insulated parkas and boots, the heavy mittens, and a thermos or two of hot coffee and go ice-fishing on one of the many famous water bodies scattered across the Dakotas -- fisheries known far and wide for the always tasty and frequently trophy-sized walleyes that they deliver up.

North Dakota and South Dakota have no shortage of places great for catching walleyes through the ice this month.

In South Dakota, water levels are up at the undisputed king of South Dakota's walleye fishing, Lake Oahe. As a result, fishing should be on the upswing over the next few years at this Rushmore State water body with some 2,250 miles of shoreline.

Not as big but equally impressive when it comes to walleye fishing are two other Missouri River impoundments in South Dakota, Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case. Thanks to better water levels, these massive reservoirs should see improving walleye fishing over the next few years as well.

And of course, plenty of smaller lakes across South Dakota offer good fishing, including Bitter Lake, Lynn Lake, and Waubay Lake among others. As most South Dakota anglers know, there are countless small "natural" water bodies scattered across the state that locals hang their walleye fishing hats on.

The bottom line in South Dakota is this: Few places on the North American continent feature better walleye fishing than this state's.

"There are states out there that would dearly love to trade catch rates with us since we have catch rates that are three and four times what some other places have," said the recently retired Dennis Unkenholz, the longtime fisheries program administrator for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

Just to the north, in the Peace Garden State of North Dakota, the two big fisheries that jump out at walleye anglers in the western half of the state are the Missouri River above Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea. Oahe has roughly 70,000 acres that back up into the state when the lake is full, while Sakakawea is a massive reservoir sporting nearly 365,000 surface-acres when full.

Both lakes have struggled with drought conditions in recent years, but walleye fishing can still be good on these two giants as water levels improve.

Farther to the east in North Dakota, a host of lakes like Audubon, Silver Lake, and Sweetwater usually support good walleye fishing. And of course, there's perhaps the best Dakota walleye fishery of all, the massive (and still growing) Devils Lake.

Having enjoyed some good fishing over the last few years -- thanks in part to the walleyes' forage base of perch, fathead minnows, and freshwater shrimp -- there's every reason to believe that Devils Lake will remain a top-end walleye fishery for years to come.

While the list of good walleye fishing spots in both of the Dakotas remains basically the same year in and year out with some weather-induced fluctuations, the question that most ice-fishermen have to answer when they step foot on their favorite hard-water hotspot is where to fish on a vast frozen sea of white.

Lynn Schlueter has some answers. Both a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at Devils Lake and an ardent hard-water fisherman for walleyes and northern pike on the 150,000-acre frozen gem, he spends most of his waking time on the water. (Continued)

"I live at the lake, I am a fisheries biologist for the Game and Fish, and yes, it is a great area for wintertime ice-fishing," Schlueter said. "There are a variety of fish to angle for here, but for most, the walleye is at the top, and some guys like me really like to target northern pike. Those two are fun to catch and are abundant. And we also have yellow perch out there -- the numbers are there, but they take a little more work."

What are Schlueter's tips for good ice-fishing action in the Dakotas?

"Don't fall in," the biologist began. "Don't do anything dumb like drive under bridges and don't drive near pressure lines -- safety is primary."

But after anglers have taken care of their safety on the ice, Schlueter says they shouldn't be afraid to ask for a little help. "One of the things that I'd suggest they do is to call bait shops and guide services (where they are going to fish) and check what is going on at that time," he said.

Why such homework? "Because the advice I give today is only good for 15 minutes," Schlueter quipped. "Those dealers and bait supply stores; they know what is going on there on a daily basis."

Beyond ice safety measures and seeking up to date ice-fishing reconnaissance information, Schlueter says that in his mind ice-fishing on Devils Lake -- or on any other Dakota hotspot for that matter -- falls into three hardwater season timeframes: new ice, mid-season, and late ice.

NEW ICE
While the new ice season may be over by the time you read this, keep Schlueter's comments handy before next year's hard-water season.

Because when the ice first starts taking hold on your favorite Dakota walleye spot, the early fishing action can be red-hot.

"When water is just freezing over there's often a burst of real good fishing," the North Dakota biologist said. "The fish are still in a transition and that's not that bad a time to fish. There's something about new ice that they like and there is almost always a good bite at new ice."

"I know it sounds funny, to be fishing the early ice just offshore," he added. "And while you might be kind of laughing when you're set up only 20 feet from the rocks and the riprap, that is deep enough to catch them at this time."

Schlueter said that when anglers can safely get out along these shorelines where the ice is thick enough to support an angler's weigh

t, that's the place to look for walleyes in 6 to 8 feet of water in most cases.

Why is new ice so good? Because such spots are probably holding baitfish, according to the fisheries biologist. Because of that important fact, the North Dakota angler's set-up is typically tipped with one of the local forage species.

"We're allowed to have four lines in during the winter, so if I'm going after just walleyes, I'll use really light tip-ups with lights that go off when the line goes straight down," Schlueter said. "I'll use braided material for line with a 14-inch leader, one split shot, and then hook a minnow through the nose or through the tail, drop him down, and pull him off the bottom a foot or so. I'll have three of those out and then use a fourth with a jig tipped with a chubby darter."

One thing Schlueter adamantly points out is that there are illegal baits to keep out of North Dakota.

"We do have laws on the importation of bait," he said. "You can not bring live aquatic bait into our state -- we don't have problems with aquatic nuisance species like they do in some states. We don't have it; we don't want it. Go to the local bait shops and stores for live bait."

While the North Dakota biologist says that ice-anglers can bring frozen bait into the state -- species like frozen fathead minnows, smelt, or herring -- the importation laws against live baitfish importation are designed to keep out white suckers, among other nuisance species.

"We're trying to protect our fishery for the public, not only for the locals, but also for the non-residents," he explained.

If an angler's first bait selection -- legal ones, of course -- don't work out, then what? "Change baits," Schlueter deadpanned. "I'm primarily a northern fisherman on the ice, so I set up tip-ups and then work a jig with one different kind of bait. That gives me something to do besides eat, which is primary, of course."

When he's not pulling a good-sized northern pike through the ice, that is: "I haven't been able to catch one of the 15-pounders, which show up here on occasion, but I've caught plenty of good 5- to 7-pounders. And once you run them through the grinder, they are all OK."

According to Schlueter, walleye lovers can expect to find plenty of 'eyes in the 14- to 16-inch range, thanks to the sheer number of the fish swimming Devils Lake. "There are lots of those," he said. "Of course, I've heard of much bigger fish being caught in the 8-, 9-, and 10-pound range. I've actually got a couple of friends who have caught them that big, although I haven't yet."

MIDWINTER
By midwinter, ice is covering lakes as the worst conditions and temperatures of the season set in on the Dakota landscape. But in Schlueter's opinion, that is one of the best times of the year to be out fishing.

"Sometimes, the fishing gets predictable during midwinter and anglers can fish a good pattern," he said. "A lot of times, I will fish shallow in 6 to 8 feet of water in areas that were good earlier in the year. I will fish deeper too when there is a bite or a pattern going on out there -- you adjust to the fish, they are not going to come to you -- but I typically start a little shallower than most people."

The biologist/angler attributes that shallow water start to his love for northern pike.

According to the NDGFD's Lynn Schlueter, walleye lovers can expect to find plenty of 'eyes in the 14- to 16-inch range, thanks to the sheer number of the fish swimming Devils Lake.

"They are typically shallower," he said. "I may go out to 15 feet to fish for northerns, but they do move into shallower water because they get baitfish trapped. I've caught northerns in 1 foot of water."

For walleyes, Schlueter admits that most of the midwinter action will be in a little deeper water. "Walleye fishermen are all over the lake from the mid-lake to the shallows, you've just got to find the bite and get where they are at."

Anglers should remain on the courteous side, of course, and keep a respectful distance from other anglers on the hard water.

"If the bite is good someplace, you might have some people pull up close to you, but for the most part, most anglers are respectful and leave some decent space," Schlueter said. "I've never had someone pull up and fish 2 feet away from me."

Like fishing sans the crowd? Well, solitude can be an option for any Dakota ice-fishing angler who is willing to work for it.

"Devils Lake is a big lake, but access is not always uniform," Schlueter said. "The city and local systems do provide some trails that are plowed out so that anglers can get around to some areas, but they don't plow what I call secondary trails. So you've got to figure out where you are, where you can get out, and where you won't get stuck. Some of the plowed trails are not real wide, so you can get stuck trying to pull an ice-fishing shack behind you."

And keep in mind that while solitude is a desirable trait for some anglers, Schlueter reminds that it is not always a safe one when fishing the ice.

"It's always good to travel in a pack," he advised.

LATE ICE
As winter turns the corner and moves toward spring, Schlueter said, good fishing can still be found under the ice. That's especially true when an angler understands the life-cycle of the fish that he is chasing.

"For walleyes, as springtime approaches, they will again move toward areas that have mild inflows," the biologist said. "It seems to me that they will be shallower in the evening and morning times around such inflows and moving water."

For his beloved northerns, Schlueter will again look to shallower water, this time in the up-lake areas where milder inflows are typically occurring.

Regardless of the species being fished for, the biologist stresses that safety -- paramount at any time an angler is on the ice -- is extremely important, but especially so as winter wanes and spring approaches.

"Safety is an issue again because there can be some weak spots develop," Schlueter said. "There is some water movement under bridges, so that could be a weak spot. Because of that, I wouldn't advise driving under the bridges at all, it might be a shortcut, but it might also be the fastest way to the bottom.

"And if you follow some tracks and they disappear into a big hole of open water, then don't go there."

What baits should an ice-fisherman use in the Dakotas in late winter? Basically, what an angler has used successfully in the past.

"For tip-ups with walleyes, I'll typically put minnows on a hook, hooked through tail or nose so they will swim and struggle," Schlueter said. "But

a lot of times the bite may be so soft that the tip-up isn't working, so maybe a small bobber at the surface will work."

And don't forget past successes either, Schlueter added. "When it comes to baits, start out with what has worked in the past or use what worked the last time out as a starting point. Yes, I do have a whole pile of lures that I've bought, but while those may have hooked me, I may not have hooked many fish with them."

While such days of not hooking many fish through the ice are few and far between for the North Dakota biologist, when they do happen, he reminds himself what ice-fishing is all about in his book.

"I fish with friends -- it's a hoot and it's fun," Schlueter said. "We cook together out there on the ice, share our ice houses, and my buddies will wake me up to tell me I've caught a fish.

While the great days of ice-fishing action can spark plenty of fireside memories down through the years, so too can the less-active days spent out on the hard water.

"One thing I can tell you from experience is to never hook a Lab up to a sled, put a kid on the sled, and then throw a dummy for the dog to fetch," Schlueter said with a laugh. "Give me some coffee, a nap on the ice and life is good -- that's ice-fishing to me. And if you want memories, watching two little kids battle a northern pike as tall as they are while falling down in their little bunny suits -- that's a good day."

A good day of Dakota hardwater fishing for iced-up 'eyes, that is.

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