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Nice on Ice

Nice on Ice

That's how your catch of yellow perch, walleyes, bluegills and more will look when you drill your fishing holes into these Dakota hardwater hotspots.

By Dick Willis

When South Dakotan Larry Baumgarn goes ice-fishing in the heart of the Great Plains, he doesn't just stare at a bobber sitting in the ice hole: He watches the fish come up and suck in the bait.

And he doesn't have to stick his head into the frigid waters near his home in Webster for that up-close view. Fishing in waters not far from the North Dakota state line, he lowers a specially built underwater camera into the frigid depths. The new-fangled device rotates around to the proper angle for him to see fish. Baumgarn looks into a 7-inch screen where he can see everything that's going on near his bait.

All of this is a far cry from the mystery of fishing that has enticed generations of Dakota ice-fishermen for the past century. And few fishermen are using this type of high-tech equipment - yet. But Baumgarn has already learned some things from hours of fish-watching that will help all ice-fishermen, including those who have nothing more complicated than a hole in the ice with a line going down into it.

And there will be plenty of fishermen with just such a setup this winter. Ice-fishing in Dakotas is still expected to be good, say biologists in both North Dakota and South Dakota. Though water levels are lower in some places, lakes and mature fish populations in general are in good shape.

Fishermen can still reap the benefit of a decade or more of relatively wet weather in the Great Plains. The yellow perch, walleye and northern pike fishery is, by its nature, cyclical. The main force in that cycle is the wet weather pattern that filled potholes and natural lakes in the Dakotas during the 1990s and the early part of this decade. Fish and ducks have done well.


It's the abundant fishery that Baumgarn and his sons exploit throughout the winter. Using their underwater camera equipment, they've managed to take a lot of the guesswork out of ice-fishing.


"Underwater camera equipment has helped tremendously," said Baumgarn. "You can see how they react to the bait. A lot of times the fish will bite and you can see it before the bobber moves."

It's the delicacy with which the fish take the bait that is of most importance to ice-fishermen. The fish are so gentle in their taking of the bait that most such contacts go undetected by anglers. Baumgarn estimates that more than 90 percent of the fish take the bait and spit it out without the bobber making so much as a quiver. The fisherman hasn't a clue that a fish is even in the vicinity.

"A perch comes up 4 to 6 inches away and looks at it," said Baumgarn. "And the bait is 4 to 6 inches off the bottom. When the fish moves up, it sucks in the minnow and then swims up."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Thus, there's no pressure pulling the bobber down. "Your bobber hasn't moved. If it feels the hook, it spits it out, and then the bobber moves. Same with crappies.

"A lot of times they are suspended, but they may be 2 to 4 feet off the bottom. You can set it at different levels in the water. You stop it or lock it and see fish from 360 degrees, because it just keeps rotating. It will tell you what depth your minnow is at."

For fishermen without a camera -and the camera apart, Baumgarn uses no special equipment that other anglers wouldn't have, typically fishing jigs tipped with minnows - this knowledge is still very useful. The fish won't spit out the bait until it feels something is wrong, so it helps to cover the hook as much as possible to help disguise your offering.

A couple of the biggest fans are Baumgarn's kids, with whom he often fishes. They like watching the screen to see the fish bite, and their skills with the camera outfit have gotten so good that they are able to set the hook on a biting fish before there is even the faintest motion on the bobber. In fact, they often don't even watch the bobber; they just watch the camera screen instead.

"Kids love it," said Baumgarn. "My third boy got the hang of that right away. You can tell a perch from a walleye from a northern. If you see a northern coming in, you don't want him to bite 2- to 3-pound line or you'll lose a lot of tackle. So you just move it out of the way."

Indeed, using the underwater camera has increased their ability to detect biting fish - so much so that they often can catch a limit in a very short time. They sometimes head for the lake during halftime of a football game on TV, and are back in time for the third-quarter kickoff with each of them having caught a limit of perch.

The underwater cameras are unquestionably an exciting development in the ice-fishing world. The unit that Baumgarn uses costs about $600, although other models retail for somewhat less. His comes equipped with infrared lights that can be used when it's dark; no extra lighting is needed during daytime. "You can see out 3 to 5 feet, depending on the clarity of the water," he said. "In clear water, 5 to 7 feet vision, or up to 10 if it is really clear."

Baumgarn says that the fish will even come right up to the camera and look at it. "You can jig your bait and then get their attention. With a lot of sunlight, or snow cover, they react differently. You can kind of watch that with your fish. A lot of times if you jig it, for instance, the fish will back up.

Winter is the ideal time to use the camera. Wave action on open water makes it more unsteady and much more difficult to use. But on ice, it has been an educational tool for Baumgarn.

"You learn a lot about fish and how they react," he said. "That is why I like them. Two years ago my son and I won the local fishing tournament - we were the only ones who had a camera, and we were the only ones who limited out on Waubay Lake."

Baumgarn finds the gear effective for the main ice-fishing species in the Dakotas - walleyes, yellow perch and northern pike. "You can see the walleyes cruise in and then go after the bait." Northern pike have an interesting effect: When a northern moves into the area, everything else moves out.

And very interestingly, Baumgarn notes, ice-fishermen have far more fish messing with their bait than they probably know. "Ninety percent of time the fisherman loses the fish and often doesn't even know it," he said. "Ninety percent of the time, the fish takes the bait before the bobber even moves. The old way of fishing, you let them take it 6 to 12 inches and then set the hook. A lot of times they wil

l take it and you'll never even know it.

"Sometimes you have 60 to 70 perch move in, and you don't know it. Now there is no doubt about how many or what kind of fish. And there is no doubt about what bait or lure attracts them. The camera will tell you what they are biting on that day."

Here's a look at where the fishing is likely to be best for a variety of gamesters in both states this month.


Baumgarn fishes Swan Lake, Waubay, Lynn and Pickerel. Those are also some of the waters mentioned by South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks biologists as some of the best this winter.

Cattail Kettle and Bitter Lake will also be good, suggests Brian Blackwell, SDDGFP fish biologist at Webster. "In winter, perch and walleyes are the primary target," he said. "There is some bluegill activity on Enemy Swim."

The midsized walleye population is also doing well. Blackwell says that many are 14 to 18 inches long, with some larger.

"Waubay will be the best lake for numbers of fish," he said. "We have pretty high catch rates for walleyes over there right now."

And he also expects Waubay to have some of the best perch populations. Average perch size there is 9 to 10 inches, which is down from the 11 1/2-inch average last winter.

"It is the 2001 year-class they are fishing this year. After that, there is basically nothing left. Our perch are tied to rising water, and we have not had a winter with snow since that winter before 2001. When we don't get runoff, our perch populations show it."

The South Dakota perch limit is 10, and even with dropping populations in coming years, Blackwell doesn't anticipate that limit will change. "I don't see us lowering it further," he said. "We are probably in the good days right now. It will go down for a few years until we get some natural reproduction. We have seen numbers go down in other lakes, too. Our lake levels are still good, but without that spring runoff, we definitely see the effects.

"It is the same with other species such as walleyes. There are a few crappie in some lakes, but they are so cyclical that sometimes we only see year-classes every fifth or sixth year."

Northern pike are also going to decline after this winter. Natural reproduction has dropped.

An exception is Bitter Lake. According to Blackwell, the chain of lakes near Bitter filled later in the wet cycle. There are 6- to 10-pound northerns there, with a few going more than 15 pounds. Still, the biologist sees fewer people going after northerns than in the past.

"There are a few people who go ice-fishing for them," he said. "But not as much as a few years ago when they were the mainstays of the area. With the high water, people wanted walleyes and perch, and we haven't seen as many northern pike fishermen."


In North Dakota, the best water levels and best fishing are expected in the eastern part of the state.

"We in the east are in much better shape than in the middle and the west," said Gene Van Eeckhout, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fish biologist at Jamestown. "Our water has been going down, but I think we are in good shape. Last winter it was not hard to find fish in many places. We didn't observe very many floaters (dead fish) last spring. So I would anticipate a few left for this winter."

But despite what appears to be good numbers of perch and other species, North Dakota biologists are gun-shy about predicting good fishing. For somewhat mysterious reasons, good fish numbers last winter did not translate into good fishing much of the time.

"The fish really threw us a curve the past couple of winters," said Eeckhout, "especially for perch, where we are trying to manage the temporary waters. It is unpredictable."

The newer, smaller, shallower perch lakes are the ones that have failed to produce good fishing at a time when many thought the fishing would be great. And biologists' test nettings have turned up good fish numbers. It could be that the fish are just too full of other food to be interested much in baits presented by ice-fishermen. And sometimes, good fishing just doesn't materialize.

"Why it doesn't happen we don't know," said Eeckhout. "But we do know that some of the lakes have a surplus of forage."

Still, Eeckhout expects the old standbys to have good fishing. Lakes such as Jamestown, Pipestem and Lake Lamoure should be fine places to catch fish through the ice.

An interesting fishing experience can be enjoyed due to the changing ecosystem in Lake Ashtabula. By most anglers' standards it would be considered a failing lake. It has been taken over by hordes of ravenous bullheads.

"Lake Ashtabula is not in too good of shape," said Eeckhout. "We are struggling. We are at a high in our bullhead density. We are having a hard time establishing age-classes of game fish. On top of that, our perch fishery collapsed."

Bullheads are warmwater fish. Their metabolism slows during winter, and usually, anglers can't expect to catch many through the ice. But there are so many of them, and they are so hungry, that they just may do some biting during winter.

"If we could move that lake to within a few miles of some metropolitan area and have a pay-for-fish operation, you could have a fortune overnight," said Eeckhout.

The bullheads weigh in at more than a pound apiece. "Anything organic will catch those bullheads," said Eeckhout. "Usually, when the density gets this high, even the guys who fish artificial baits have trouble not catching them."

Yellow perch remain the chief objective for most North Dakota fishermen, along with walleyes. "But we have developed a bit of a crappie culture the past few years," said Eeckhout. "Jamestown produced crappie the last 10 years. But Pipestem has been producing crappie now for the last three to four years."

The harsh winters and shallow natural lakes produce continual boom-and-bust cycles of fish. Of course, it's yellow perch, walleyes and northern pike that fit into that type of ecosystem.

It's possible that the tail end of the boom period is at hand this winter. Already, some areas of North Dakota have shown the beginnings of a downward trend.

"The northwestern part of the state took a beating last winter," said Eeckhout. "They were marginal areas. We had a couple (of die-offs) in our standard lakes, but most of the fish kill last spring was in the real marginal areas. I would like to see the 1- to 1 1/2-pound perch harvested. We certainly have a lot of perch in the 1 to 1 1/2-pound range."

That goes against some of the conventional conservation techniques of catch-and-release fishing. But with shallower northern Great Plains lakes very subject to winterkill, some will eventually have total die-offs. So harvest is encouraged when, it's felt, that may be about to happen.

"We have been encouraging the harvest in some of these shallow lakes that came on line in '93 because we hate to see them winterkilled or summerkilled," said Eeckhout. "That is what ultimately will occur. There is no doubt in my mind.

"We are encouraging harvest, though it might seem like a lot at times - 35 perch, crappie or bluegills per day. That might be a stretch for bluegills, but there are some places you could do that with crappie, and more places for perch. We sure would like to see some of them harvested rather than be floating next spring."

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