The Ice Is Right!

The Ice Is Right!

That time of year is here, and these are the prime locations for drilling holes in the Dakota ice to enjoy some fishing fun this month. Come on down! (January 2008).

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

January on the northern plains ushers in not only a new year, but also a new season on the great outdoor playing field we call the Dakotas. Having just put another great season afield to rest, it's time to kick back and look ahead to the next big outdoor adventure. For most of us, that's simple: Switch gears into fishing mode and dust off the ice-fishing equipment.

It can be a bit depressing to put Old Betsy in the gun cabinet for another year, but after the great fall bite witnessed in many of our lakes and rivers and improved water levels across the board, anticipation for another good ice-fishing season is the best thing going in the long month of January.

I read last year that a warming trend (global or otherwise) had put a hurt on much of the ice-fishing in many Midwestern states. That certainly wasn't the case in the Dakotas. While many Midwesterners were busy looking for safe ice to walk on, people in our neck of the woods were looking for extensions for their ice augers.

I love to ice-fish, but the thought of falling through thin ice can keep a guy awake at night. Thanks to a couple of brutal cold fronts last December, over 25 inches of good ice could be found at my familiar haunts along the James River in central South Dakota when I first hit the ice last year. (Continued)

This was no serious charge for trophy fish, nor anything else of that nature -- only family fishing for anything that would bite, and a chance to get outside. Don't get me wrong: The Jim River holds its share of big fish -- but just an occasional flag or disappearing bobber was all we were looking for. When the smoke cleared at the end of the afternoon, we had accomplished just that: about six good hits and three fish on the ice -- all of them pike from 3 to 8 pounds.

Whether you're a serious, diehard angler heading out to the big ice fields with a host of electronic gadgets or the guy who just wants to sit on a five-gallon bucket and stare at a hole in the ice for a couple of hours before sunset, it all starts this month -- and the hard water of the Dakotas has something for everyone. Here's a look at a few of top prospects for this year and what anglers can expect when they hit the ice.

One of the best hardwater bites going last year occurred along the North and South Dakota border at Lake Oahe, near Pollock, S.D., and this should be another banner year for the area. Depending on ice conditions, this action should be taking off any day, and if you like to ice-fish for walleyes, this is the place to be. It's no secret that Oahe is back on top of its game, producing scores of chunky walleyes in the 18- to 21-inch range and beyond. The walleye population in the entire Lake Oahe system is in great shape, and owing to the annual late-fall migration into the Mobridge/Pollock area, tons of (usually) very accommodating fish should be in the area by now.

Ice-fishing Oahe has always been a tough call because of safe-ice concerns, but this stretch of the river generally enjoys a good run starting later this month, and that can continue into March. When the fish are going, it's a great place to be. No secret hotspots or tricky techniques are involved -- just a well-established bite announced by the sight of anglers, portable shacks and ATVs and the sound of early-morning ice-augers. Plop down a few minnows and get ready. If you have any questions on where to stay, where they're biting or ice conditions, just call Bob Beyers at the West Pollock Resort, and he'll answer all of your questions.

The next stop is near the town of Webster, S.D., which sits smack in the middle of some of the best ice-fishing action in South Dakota. Within a 30-minute drive of the town lie roughly 15 productive lakes, any one of which is producing not only walleyes right now, but also perch, pike and crappie.

This area in the northeast part of the state annually provides the bulk of the state's ice-fishing action, and by looking at last year's action, the fall bite and current fish populations, anglers can quickly find a bite that suits their specific tastes.

With good access, helpful bait shops, plenty of fish and some of the best ice that Mother Nature can freeze up, it's no wonder that ice-fishing is popular at Devils Lake.

There are several area lakes that offer potential this winter. One of those is Opitz Lake. This is a relatively new fishery, and because of access issues it's actually a much better lake for ice-fishing than it is for open-water angling. There are no public boat launches or ramps and boat traffic is very minimal, but ice-anglers can gain access off of public rights of way by walking or ATV traffic if the snow cover is minimal.

The lake produced one of the highest test-netting catch rates conducted by South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks last spring and has a ton of walleyes in the 14-inch class, as well as a good year-class of 17- to 18-inch fish. On the upper end are a few walleyes in the 22-inch range. This lake should be one of the best when it comes to icing walleyes.

You can't talk about ice-fishing northeastern South Dakota and not mention Bitter Lake, the home of the state-record perch. Taken through the ice in 2004, the 2-pound, 12-ounce perch set a record that could well be broken in the very same lake.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see the record fall this winter," said Brian Blackwell, fisheries biologist in the Webster office of the SDDGFP. "There are not a lot of perch in the lake, but size is another matter. They are as big as footballs, and the potential is definitely there for a new record. There is also a good population of walleyes in the lake from 15 to 17 inches and a few fish going over 20 inches. But most people who hit the ice on Bitter are looking for trophy-class perch."

A quick look at Hazelton Lake shows a walleye population that has been depleted but still produces some good fish.

"Over 70 percent of the walleye population has been taken from the lake," explained Blackwell, "but there are still walleyes in the system, and I think the perch and crappie bite is going to be good. With crappie in the 2-pound range, this lake will see its share of action."

Also in the area is a unique system that is maintained as a trophy fishery. Reetz Slough has its own set of regulations designed to protect its large fish yet allow people a chance at harvesting a few.

"The system attracts a different type of angler, but it has been well received," stated Blackwell. T

he current regulations allow for a daily limit of five perch, only one of which may be greater than 10 inches, and a daily limit of one walleye over 28 inches.

"There are a lot of walleyes from 20 to 27 inches in the system, as well as a good smallmouth bass population and perch into the 14-inch category. These are big fish, and people seem to have no problem returning them back to the water. We have seen an increase in pressure on the system, and the response has been favorable, so I look for a good ice-fishing bite this year."

Last on the list is the ever-popular Roy Lake. This lake has a faithful following of anglers who return on an annual basis to ice-fish the lake. A combination of quality and quantity keep perch, walleye and pike anglers busy throughout the year with a balance of eating-sized fish and an occasional trophy-sized fish. Roy is a very healthy lake, and anglers work hard to maintain the quality of this fishery.

Naturally, the bite in the Webster area is not confined to any particular fishery, and on any given day a host of lakes can be enjoying a hot bite. There are a ton of options, and anglers should look at them all. One day the bite is big perch on Bitter, the next it's bluegills on Enemy Swim or the pike on Waubay. Perhaps it's a walleye bite on Opitz or Antelope, or a combination bite farther to the south on Lake Thompson, but something is always going. If you want to save a lot of legwork, stop in at the Sportsman's Cove in Webster and ask the guys where the fish are biting -- nothing beats a stop at the bait shop.

Across the border into North Dakota lies one of the premier ice-fishing destinations in the country -- Devils Lake. The lake has been on fire for several years because of expanding water levels and huge year-classes of game fish being produced in the newly flooded vegetation.

At this venue made famous by jumbo perch, it has been the tremendous walleye and pike action that has taken top billing the past few years as easy limits of quality fish have hit the ice -- but that situation may be changing.

"We had a real surprise last winter," reported Kyle Blanchfield at the Woodland Resort on the famed lake. "We had our first good perch run in several years, and it looks like our perch populations may have turned the corner. It wasn't the heyday of the 1980s, but we had six or seven very good runs with a lot of quality fish put on the ice.

"The past few years, you really had to look around and work for these fish with limited success, but last year the perch really cooperated and acted like they are supposed to. We are pretty anxious to get on the ice and see how things go this year."

According to Blanchfield, lots of perch over a pound and a few hitting that magical 2-pound mark were pulled through the ice. "The fish averaged anywhere from a half-pound to a pound and a quarter," he said, "with plenty of jumbos in the mix. Of course, around here nobody gets excited unless a perch is over a pound and three quarters, but everyone is excited about perch fishing again, and it's good to see."

Which isn't to say that the fishing for pike and walleye has gone bust. "We are still seeing a lot of good walleyes in the system, and the pike population is incredible," said Blanchfield. "But our walleye bite has simmered a bit, and you have to work harder for them. It's still an amazing walleye fishery with lots of year-classes, including a lot of bread-and-butter fish in the 2- to 4-pound range, but even last summer the bite was tougher.

"It has been so easy to catch a limit of walleyes on the lake the past few years, I hate to say it is a tougher bite, because I don't want people to the wrong idea. Walleye fishing is still alive and well -- but they won't jump out of every hole you dig."

The pike bite? Always good on Devils Lake, and people are finally hitting the ice in search of the bruisers.

"We have a ton of pike out there, with a lot of fish in the 4- to 6-pound range and beyond," remarked Blanchfield. "It used to be hard to convince people to come up here just for the pike fishing, but now we have several groups who love to set up tip-ups and spend the day battling them."

With good access, helpful bait shops, plenty of fish and some of the best ice that Mother Nature can freeze up, it's no wonder that ice-fishing is popular on Devils Lake.

The last stop on the ice-fishing express this month is on the western reaches of Lake Sakakawea near Williston, N.D., and Lund's Landing.

While water levels rose slightly along the entire stretch of the Missouri River last year, they are still at historic lows, and the effects have hit this area significantly. For Jim Torgerson, owner of Lund's Landing, the low water levels have been a way of life for some time. "We haven't launched a boat in this area in 10 years," he said, "and our buildings are probably a mile from the water."

So why would Lund's Landing make the where-to-go list this year? Some may think it's the famed juneberry pie at the resort -- and that certainly plays into the equation! -- but the main reason is still the tremendous fishing that the local flavor has been experiencing for years.

Walleyes annually migrate into the area by early fall, and the 20-mile stretch of river surrounding Lund's Landing is still one of the best places in the state for taking quality walleyes and an occasional trophy pike.

"We usually see good ice in the month of December, and the favored areas around the Hofflund Islands, White Earth Bay, Tobacco Garden and the pipeline crossing get busy in a hurry," noted Torgerson.

The walleyes in the area are stacked and fairly predictable. A bite lasts two to three days before fading, but there is enough activity on the ice to announce the location of the next hot bite. Fish range from 2 to 5 pounds with an occasional trophy, and most of the access is by ATV. Torgerson estimates there are more ATVs per household in western North Dakota than anywhere else in the country.

There are no big secrets to catching walleyes in the area.

"Nothing fancy," said Torgerson. "There are a lot of fish in the area, and they are cooperative most of the time."

It doesn't matter if you're running out for an afternoon of fishing on the lake next door or planning a three-day visit to one of the famed aforementioned destinations, the simplicity of ice-fishing and the great opportunities that the Dakotas have to offer this month are endless. This is going to be a great ice-fishing season, and it doesn't matter where you drill your holes -- the ice is right!


For information on lodging and ice conditions and the latest fishing report on the Pollock region of Lake Oahe, talk to Bob at the West Pollock Resort, (605) 889-2448.

For the same information on Devils Lake, contact Kyle Blanchfi

eld at the Woodland Resort, (701) 662-5996. l

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