By Dick Willis
By the time January rolls around, all of the smaller lakes in the Dakotas are frozen rock-hard, and they’re likely to be the scene of some of the heaviest fishing of the year. And usually the big Missouri River reservoirs are ready, or close to being ready, for ice-fishing.
This year is expected to be a good one in both North Dakota and South Dakota. Lakes are in relatively good shape, and fish populations are expected to be fine in most waters. And ice-fishermen will be out for all of the primary species on the northern Great Plains – walleyes, northern pike and yellow perch.
Of those three, the yellow perch is the one that attracts an inordinate amount of fishing activity during winter; fishermen go after the perch more in the winter than in the summer. And, of course, lots of walleyes, always highly popular, will be caught through the ice. Practically every lake of any consequence in the Dakotas has at least a decent walleye population; many of them have excellent numbers of walleyes to complement their superb ice-fishing.
Anglers looking to go after a truly aggressive fish specifically target the northern pike, which are common in the Missouri River system. At Devils Lake in North Dakota, Lynn Schlueter pursues the toothy predators every winter. When he isn’t fishing, Schlueter is special fisheries projects biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Devils Lake is now a huge body of water, having expanded greatly in recent years. For the walleyes, northerns and other fish, it makes for a very comfortable life, indeed.
The lake is so big that fishermen are often advised to move if they aren’t catching fish. “One of the things I would list is that ice-fishing has always been a case of go out and look,” Schlueter said. “The more you look, the more you are going to find.”
That’s what the best ice-fishermen often do when in search of for walleyes: move a lot.
The first thing Schlueter recommends is to query locals as to what’s been going on with the ice-fishing. “Check with local bait shops and resorts,” he offered. “They have always got the latest information that will help you figure out a trip.”
When Schlueter goes after northern pike on Devils Lake, he first tries the shallows near submerged trees. “You can get in mudflats for some nice northern pike,” he said. “And that is the place to look for northerns. A lot of people are out in the middle, but the northerns are in the shallows.
“You put your tip-ups out, your lounger – and you sit there and enjoy the sun. Someone yells, and someone ambitious gets up and runs over to check the tip-up.”
Schlueter quite often fishes farther off the bottom than many other ice-fishermen will. In fact, he’ll sometimes fish fairly close to the ice – fishing 3 to 4 feet off the bottom in shallow water.
“Occasionally I have had good luck 6 feet below the ice,” he stated. “Everyone else is pounding them on the bottom.”
Devils Lake is a very popular lake for angling both in open-water periods and during the ice-fishing season. One of the best ways to fish it is to try your luck where there’s a drop in the lake bottom. Fish – walleyes, northern pike, other species – sometimes concentrate there.
“There are some beautiful drops in this lake,” Schlueter observed. “I will get right on the edge of that drop. Run a line of tip-ups, too.
Schlueter also does some jigging. “Jig it slow,” he said. “You don’t want to work up a sweat, you know. This is relaxation. You set your tip-ups out, sit in the truck seat, listen to the radio, visit, let the sun shine on good days. Good coffee, good friends, good tobacco. Life is good.”
It’s a similar situation for fishing for walleyes and other species. Right now, yellow perch are the most sought-after fish among ice-fishermen at Devils Lake.
“The perch are there,” Schlueter affirmed. “The last few years, what we have found is that you have got to move to find them. It’s a big lake – lots of area. The perch seem to be on the move. You are in them for a while, and then you miss them.
January is one of the best times to go after perch in Devils Lake. Even so, the fishing is quite unpredictable. “In January they are chasing the perch,” Schlueter noted. “I wish I could tell you that, on Jan. 15, this would be the best spot. But my crystal ball gets hazy at this point.”
Ice-anglers targeting walleyes need to take account of some definite patterns during January. In a way, they’re somewhat predictable. Much of the fishing takes place late in the evening, when the walleyes move into the submerged trees. It’s an excellent location to fish for them, as they stay there until morning. This pattern of walleye movement is common on many Dakota lakes.
“For some reason, these walleyes seem to come into the timber in later afternoon,” Schlueter remarked. “You can sit on the treeline or in the trees and do fairly well on nice walleyes – from 14 inches to 6 pounds.”
The walleyes are quite healthy – fat and growing well, according to Schlueter. The result: the chance to catch three major sportfish on Devils Lake. And you can do that on every January outing.
“You chase the perch in the day,” said Schlueter. “At night you pull into the trees and chase walleye. If that doesn’t work, during daytime you go look for northerns.”
Some ice-fishermen use extremely modern technology. “If you bring an underwater camera you can go absolutely nuts,” Schlueter offered. “You watch the fish swim up, look at your lure, and swim off. Which is interesting is to watch. We watched one day, and a bunch of yellow perch swam up and looked at the lures. We very slowly moved the camera and saw a twinkle, like a fluorescent dot coming up. Then we realized that was the reflection of the walleye eyes. Their eyes are reflective.
“I don’t know how far away that was. But the little perch turned and looked in that direction. Then, poof, like street hoodlums, the perch were gone. The walleye came through. The perch watched and watched. They came back and dinked around.”
Freshwater shrimp abound in Devils Lake. A very high-protein food, they get eaten by everything else. Even the huge northern pike will pick them off. It’s one of the reasons that
the fish are so healthy: They’re well fed.
“One of the things that is interesting is that the Gammarus (freshwater shrimp) is an invertebrate,” said Schlueter. “This will actually cause the meat to get orange. There is carotene in the exoskeleton; it stains the flesh. It is a darker color in the fish flesh than you would see elsewhere.”
According to Schlueter, this situation is similar to the outcome of a pheasant eating weed seeds. Those seeds’ carotene turns the pheasant’s fat a dark orange; by the same token, a diet of corn will turn it white.
The freshwater shrimp are big enough to curve up over a fingernail. “They are numerous,” says Schlueter. “If they get a lot of it, they can make a meal. The Gammarus are so numerous in this lake that even the big pike can swim around and snarf these up and get full.”
Devils Lake is by far the best known of the North Dakota fishing venues (other than the Missouri River of course). But there are a number of other smaller lakes that are excellent.
“Some of us go to the North Lakes – Morris, Sweetwater, Pelican, Silver,” Schlueter stated. “We mostly fish for northerns. It is a blast. You are out there and have a good time with friends. It is strictly a bunch of northern fishermen having a blast.
“It involves the tailgate if the weather is good, a two-burner stove, two cans of dark beer, brats, chopped onions simmered for two hours. Then roll it around in the skillet. Then you serve that in a rye bun. We aren’t worried if the fish aren’t biting. We are out there to have a good time. This is recreation. We aren’t out there for meat.”
In South Dakota, the ice-fishing is equally good. In recent years the northeastern natural lakes have exploded with satisfying action. The northeastern lakes have even drawn anglers away from the Missouri River.
All of the natural lakes should be promising, as they’re coming off years of wet weather during which they filled up, and some that didn’t hold fish before have them now. Their water levels are expected to be down a bit, but they still have lots of fish – mainly walleyes, yellow perch and northern pike. The walleyes and yellow perch are especially popular with South Dakota ice-fishermen.
“I definitely think it will be a pretty good winter,” offered Brian Blackwell, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks biologist at Webster. “We are still good. We haven’t lost a lot of water. We had a pretty good summer of fishing and I expect that to carry on into the winter.”
Blackwell predicts that among the best lakes will be Enemy Swim, Waubay, Pickerel, Kampeska, Dry Lake, Roy, Lynn and Opitz lakes. “It is primarily perch, and some walleyes that will dominate our winter fishery,” he said.
Overharvest has been a problem in some lakes in the past few years. It’s not so much that there are a lot more fishermen – it’s just that with modern technology and equipment, anglers have become better at catching fish. And some South Dakota lakes have been hurt by that, with the average size of the fish caught having gone down in some waters. That’s one reason that there’s now a two-fish walleye limit on Lynn, Opitz and Waubay lakes. The minimum size is 16 inches; only one fish can be over 20 inches.
“We are trying to slow down the harvest of the fish and maintain size structure in the population,” said Blackwell. “This is actually the second year for Opitz and Lynn; Waubay started this year. It is pretty early for results. One thing we can say for sure is that it hasn’t deterred anglers – there are lots of anglers. The driving force is that they can catch fish.”
Angling success has increased in the past decade. Ice-fishing techniques have improved. And now, with ice-fishermen using sonar and, in a few instances, even underwater cameras, that heightened level of expertise is taking a toll on game fish populations.
“I think anglers are better equipped,” Blackwell remarked. “There is hardly a day when they can’t fish anymore. The equipment is so much better. They are pretty darned efficient at catching fish.”
On the natural lakes in the northeastern part of South Dakota, January is actually the middle of the ice-fishing season. “The first ice and last ice is usually best,” said Blackwell. “But there are midwinter bites in January and February. A lot of it depends on what kind of winter we have. If anglers can move a lot, it is good. If we get a lot of snow cover it slows down. With snow, oxygen levels are lower and it slows the fish down. Plus, fishermen can’t get around as good.”
As one moves farther south in eastern South Dakota, the lake levels get lower – and so do the fishing prospects.
“In general, our water conditions are low,” reported Todd St. Sauiver, SDDGFP regional fisheries manager at Sioux Falls. “If we get a moderately severe winter with lots of snow, we are looking at widespread winter-kill across the southeastern region. It would mainly affect our marginal lakes. It won’t affect Thompson, Madison and Brant. But in general we are expecting good fishing. There are good fish populations in our lakes.”
The most fished-for species for ice-angling in southeastern South Dakota remains the yellow perch. “Most of our anglers are after them,” said St. Sauiver. “Some of the good lakes would include Lake Thompson, Madison, Brant, Long and Sinai.”
St. Sauiver says that ice-fishermen will be catching mostly 8- to 10-inch perch. “Our populations have been fine,” he noted. “Most years, January is still a pretty good fishing month. It varies a lot in our region.”
In the southeast, the lakes freeze over a little later in the season than they do farther to the north. “A lot of times we don’t even get good ice to get out on until the first of January,” St. Sauiver remarked, “so the bulk of our fishing activity occurs in January.”
Many ice-fishermen go with a Kastmaster or minnow. Another much-used rig is a small leadhead tipped with a wax worm.
All in all, St. Sauiver thinks, there are fewer ice-fishermen in the southeast than there are in northeastern South Dakota, where the fishing has been hot the past few years. “Maybe it is because the northeast has been so good,” he speculated. “Generally, what we see is that anglers are so mobile, they go where the hot lake is. They ignore a lot of lakes. Last year you could get your 25-fish limit in less than an hour a lot of times, but fishing pressure never really got heavy. They were willing to go farther to get bigger fish.
“But Madison was a wonderful fishery for kids. You could take kids out and they would have a blast catching perch 7 to 8 inches with an occasional 9 to 11 inches. They were a little smaller than people expect.”
This winter those smaller fish should have grown a couple of inches, providing a fishery with a larger average size for perch. At press time, the SDDGFP was doing a survey to check fish sizes in Madison Lake.
“We have some pretty good northern pike – Lake Thompson, Lake Whitewood and Lake Preston are very good,” said St. Sauiver. “They will run from fairly small 3-pounders in Lake Preston, to a little larger 5- to 6-pounders in Whitewood. In Lake Thompson they run all sizes, but you have a real shot at one over 15 pounds. West 81 Lake, south of Arlington, has some big fish. We did some test-netting there last spring and found good numbers of fish over 10 pounds in there.”
And, of course, the walleyes will be a perennial quarry through the ice. As always, they are greatly favored by South Dakota fishermen.
St. Sauiver expects Lake Thompson to be one of the best walleye lakes in southeastern South Dakota. Other good ones for walleyes will be Brant, Madison, Herman, East Vermillion and Sinai.
The vast majority of anglers going after walleyes through the ice will be locals. “You could say our non-resident fishing has picked up just a little bit,” St. Sauiver noted, “but not all that much. Less than 5 percent of our anglers in this area are non-residents.”
For an even more varied ice-fishing experience, some fishermen will go after crappie and bluegills. There are some pretty good lakes for those species, especially Lake Mitchell, East Vermillion Lake and Marindahl Lake.
“They are a little smaller down there, but the fishing is good,” offered St. Sauiver. “Thompson has a decent population of very large crappie, but they are usually hard for anybody to find. But occasionally we hear of good catches of 10 to 12-plus size crappie.”
It all makes for a varied ice-fishing experience in the Dakotas.
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