Ice-fishing hotspots are widespread and widely varied in their offerings, making it difficult at times to decide where to go. To help with these decisions, we've hand-picked excellent destinations throughout the Great Plains region.
Yellow perch are a major attraction for ice-fishing on several Great Plains lakes. Interestingly, North Dakota's Devils Lake, which may be the best known lake in the region for its perch fishing, currently offers much better ice-fishing for walleyes and northern pike. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
From North Dakota's glacial lakes to Kansas' reservoirs, the Great Plains has a plethora of ice-fishing opportunities. The destinations are diverse and accessible and offer angling opportunities for just about every species you can imagine.
Following is a list of destinations that you'll want to add to your ice-fishing calendar.
Think about ice-fishing and North Dakota and you immediately think of Devils Lake and giant yellow perch, but I found out that's old news.
"The perch fishing has really gone downhill from say, a decade ago," offered North Dakota Game and Fish Department Fisheries Chief Greg Power. "It's still our number one destination for ice-fishing. It still has some perch, but it's more of a walleye and pike fishery now. There are lots of predators and good natural reproduction, which tends to keep the perch numbers down."
Power said the predator explosion has paralleled higher water levels that have flooded vegetation and lowered the lake's salinity. Devils Lake used to be totally dependent on stockings to maintain game fish populations, but now the lake's fish populations are maintained by natural reproduction. It's been a win-win situation for everything except the perch. Power was quick to add that anglers do still catch those 2-pound jumbos that the lake is famous for -- just not nearly as many.
Power said there is an abundance of walleyes in the lake right now, with several strong year classes. Walleye in the 14- to 20-inch size range are very common and there are plenty of 25- to 30-inch trophies. Northern pike are doing equally well and they range from hammer handles to 20-pound leviathans.
Devils Lake varies in size from 130,000 to 160,000 acres, depending on the day (and your information source). In such a huge body of water, you'd think fish might be tough to find. However, that doesn't seem to be a limiting factor on Devils Lake.
"The lake is not tough to fish," Power said, "but it's been kind of hit or miss the last couple years because of the weather. The problem is access because it's often hard to get on the lake with all the snow pack. The whole lake can be good. The northwest basin is the most productive for pike. It's very popular with people who like to spearfish."
For more information on ice-fishing opportunities, amenities and guides contact www.tourism.devilslakend.com.
Another lake that Power pointed to as one of North Dakota's best is Metigoshe Lake, northwest of Bottineau in the north-central part of the state. "Metigoshe is very good for both bluegill and walleye," Power said.
Look at a map of Metigoshe and you'll see that this 1,550-acre lake is a myriad of coves, bays, points and humps that make for ideal fish habitat and account for more than 27 miles of shoreline. The deepest spot is in the north basin, where it dips to 24 feet. The lake averages 11 feet in depth, which is perfect for panfish.
Power said ice-anglers routinely take buckets of hand-sized 'gills, especially on first ice. Walleye fishing is exceptional, with first ice again being especially good. Walleye fishermen find plenty of eaters and an occasional trophy fish. You'll find good access on the east, middle and southwest portions of the lake.
For more information on ice-fishing and amenities near Metigoshe Lake contact www.bonttineau.com or call (701) 228-3849.
"Reetz Lake is a natural lake that was a slough until the mid-90s," said Fisheries Biologist Brian Blackwell. He noted that the 600-acre lake now has depths to 24 feet. Reetz Lake is located five miles south of Webster off Highway 25.
"Reetz Lake is a relatively new fishery that we are managing as a trophy lake," Blackwell said. "The limit is one walleye over 28 inches. The fish exhibit extremely good growth rates in the lake, and it is a great place for a lot of activity."
The lake is full of walleye, so you can't help but catch fish, even if you can't keep most of them. You can keep yellow perch, and Reetz Lake was one of the few South Dakota destinations that produced good perch fishing last winter because it was one of the few lakes you could get on. Blackwell said the perch on Reetz average 10 inches.
12,841-acre North Waubay Lake is actually a chain of 10 lakes in northeast South Dakota, but the lakes can be difficult to distinguish from each other.
"Waubay Lake is another relatively new fishery," Blackwell said. Unheard of amounts of precipitation inundated the lakes in the 1990s, filling them to capacity and then some. The water covered roads, timber and farms and jumpstarted the fishery. Today, Waubay continues to be one of the better winter destinations in South Dakota.
"Waubay Lake has probably been one of the most consistent perch producers over the past 10 years," said Blackwell. "The lake has a 10-fish limit on perch, and they'll average 10 inches. It has an abundant walleye population. In the past, there was a 14-inch size limit on walleye, but that was recently removed. Now there's no size limit on walleye, and the regular state limit of four fish, with one over 20 inches, applies."
Hotspots for walleye include the point south of the Grenville access, School Bus Point, breaks around Helwig Island and around Duck Island.
The perch can be a little more finicky. "A lot of guys finesse fish for the perch with real light line and larva," Blackwell said, "almost like you'd fish for bluegills."
For lake maps, bait, tackle and current fishing reports contact: Sportsmart in Grenville, South Dakota at (605) 486-4641.
"Deerfield Lake is extremely popular with ice anglers," stated fisheries biologist Gene Galinat. "The lake not on
ly gives up a lot of fish, it also produces plenty of trophy fish." Deerfield Lake is located 12 miles west of Hill City.
Galinat said that Deerfield Lake is basically a rainbow trout fishery, but other species add to the mix. Trout are planted every month during the summer, but many survive through the winter. The 414-acre lake had a reputation for giving up trophy splake, but splake have not been planted in the lake for several years, according to Galinat.
Some anglers claim there's a population of lake-run brook trout, which come down from the creeks that feed the reservoir. Either way, there's hodgepodge of trout to tempt winter anglers. The fish range from a foot long to the state record, which came from the lake. Perch, although never officially planted in the lake, are doing well and add to the winter diversity. They average 8 to 10 inches.
"Most anglers just use a slip bobber with a tear drop and wax worms or meal worms for the trout," offered Geraldine Cummins of The Rooster in Rapid City. Cummins said the trout often suspend, so anglers need to probe all depths. "The perch hang near the bottom and guys typically use the same baits for them."
Hotspots at first ice are Gold Run Cove, the inflow of Castle Creek and the other fingers off the lake. Vegetation in shallow areas up the fingers holds aquatic insects and crayfish. Later, the trout move to deeper water and suspend. Good electronics will help you locate the trout and figure out the depths they're using.
For more information on Deerfield Lake contact The Rooster in Rapid City at (605) 342-3867.
Valentine Refuge Lakes
If you want to experience some of the best ice-fishing in Nebraska, turn your attention to the north-central part of the state.
"Top of the list for Nebraska ice-fishing destinations has always been the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge lakes," offered Nebraska Fisheries Outreach Program Manager Daryl Bauer. "Pelican, Dewey, Clear, Watts, Hackberry, West Long and Duck lakes all offer excellent ice-fishing. On the Valentine Refuge, through the ice, you can catch pike, some of the fattest, prettiest largemouth bass you'll find anywhere; big yellow perch and bluegills as big as your face."
Managed as part of the Fort Niobrara/Valentine NWR Complex, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is 71,772 acres in size and is located 20 miles south of Valentine, Nebraska, off of U.S. Highway 83. The refuge headquarters is located off of Highway 83 along the 16B Spur. Directional signs are located along the route. Special refuge regulations include a 28-inch maximum size limit for pike, and catch-and-release for muskies and bass on Watts Lake.
Giant bluegills are the main draw for ice-anglers on the refuge lakes. The giant 'gills routinely top a pound. Regulars claim that the overall fishing is not what it used to be, but if it's a trophy bluegill you're after there may not be a better place in the Great Plains region. The finicky 'gills require anglers use light line, tiny baits and persistence.
For refuge rules, fishing regulations and access information, contact the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, HC 14 Box 67, Valentine, NE 69201; (402) 376-3789; http://valentine.fws.gov.http://valentine.fws.gov
Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge
"I would place the Crescent National Wildlife Refuge right up there, too," Bauer said. "No pike there, but excellent perch fishing as well as some big largemouths and bluegills." Ice-anglers are permitted on the refuge from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. The refuge is located off Hwy. 26 and Hwy. 2, approximately 26 miles north of Oshkosh.
Island Lake (711 acres) is one of the larger lakes in the refuge system and is open to fishing year-round. Island Lake is shallow, with few spots more than 8 feet deep, so subtle structure, be it a clump of weeds, a rock or dip in the substrate, tends to concentrate fish. Because the lakes are so shallow, power augers and noise can scatter fish. Therefore, anglers who keep to themselves often do the best. Finesse fishing with light line, tiny jigs and tear drops and larva will catch all the available species including largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, walleye and yellow perch. Possession or use of live or dead minnows is prohibited in refuge lakes, as is the possession of any fish not taken from refuge lakes. Dead smelt may be used as bait. Access can be gained at several boat ramps and fishing piers.
Smith Lake (210 acres) and Crane Lake (128 acres) are two other refuge lakes that are open to ice-fishing from Nov. 1 to Feb. 15. Smith Lake has largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie and yellow perch. Ice anglers' main quarry on Crane Lake are yellow perch, which will average 8 to 10 inches.
For more information contact the Crescent Lake/North Platte NWR Complex, 10630 Rd. 181, Ellsworth, NE 69340; (308) 762-4893; http://refuges.fws.gov/profiles/index.cfm?id=64510.
"Merritt Reservoir would also rate high on the list," said Bauer. "Panfishing dominates the ice-fishing scene at Merritt, with some yellow perch and bluegills, but crappies would be the primary panfish caught through the ice. Merritt also put out some walleyes, big channel cats and the occasional big pike through the ice."
Covering nearly 3,000 acres, Merritt Reservoir was created in 1964 when the Snake River was dammed near its confluence with Boardman Creek, flooding both valleys as well as the reservoir's third meandering arm, called the Powder Horn because of its unique shape. All three arms produce great ice-fishing opportunities.
Although Merritt is most famous for its panfish, it could be one of the best spots in Nebraska for big walleye, too. Recent survey nets not only captured a lot of walleye at Merritt, they also caught a large percentage from 15 to 25 inches in length, with a few over 25 inches.
For information on lodging, bait, tackle and ice reports, contact the Merritt Trading Post at www.merritttradingpost.com or by calling (402) 376-3437.
Glen Elder Reservoir
It's not so much the fish that determine the success of ice-fishing in Kansas. Many times it's the weather. "Most years we have three to four weeks of good ice," said Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks district fisheries biologist Scott Waters. "Last year we had three months of good ice."
When Old Man Winter cooperates, Glen Elder can produce some excellent ice-fishing. This 12,586-acre reservoir is located 12 miles west of Beloit off U.S. Highway 24.
"Historically almost all the ice-fishing on Glen Elder was for white bass," Waters said, "but now that the crappie population is coming back because of the higher water levels, everyone is targeting white crappies."
Waters said that the crappies are really good sized, with the majority of them 10 to 12 inches, but 15- and 16-inchers are not uncommon. He also said there are several good year classes waiting in the wings so fishing should continue to be good for several years.
The hottest ice-fishing typically takes place on the west end of the reservoir near the Cawker City Causeway. Current there attracts migrating schools of shad and the resulting predators. The area is also somewhat sheltered, so the ice tends to be more consistent there. Waters said that fishing can be good on the main lake, but ice conditions are iffier.
"If the ice is good, there are several locations where we've placed artificial brush piles that really attract the fish," he said. Buoys mark the brush piles.
For more information on Glen Elder and other Kansas ice-fishing destinations contact the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks Operations Office, 512 SE 25th Ave., Pratt, KS 67124 (620) 672-5911 or online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.