A big picture look at North Dakota winter fishing
Guest post from North Dakota Game & Fish outreach biologist Doug Lier.
When the first storm iced some parts of North Dakota, then followed with snow from inches to feet, a collective sigh could be heard from Williston to Wahpeton.
After the snow was moved, those with a glass half-full attitude smiled with thoughts of ice fishing. There was more snow, more cold, but the hardy souls had seen this before.
It’s what we do. Get outdoors and take the season for what it is, instead of waiting and hoping for an early spring.
We must not forget how last winter left many North Dakota waters lower than they’d been from severe drought. Game and Fish Department fisheries managers worried that declining water levels and other factors would lead to significant winterkill.
Fortunately, we were wrong.
“Winterkill is a game changer. In a bad winter we can lose 20 waters on the low side to as many as 50 waters on the high side,” said Greg Power, Department fisheries chief. “Thankfully, we didn’t have much winterkill, so all those lakes, about 450 of them, are still out there producing fish. Our fish populations are in good to excellent shape pretty much throughout the state. That means lots of opportunities for anglers. We went into winter in good shape.”
The good news about last year’s drought is that it ended in pretty dramatic fashion in April of 2022 with an unprecedented amount of snow in parts of the state, followed by rain.
“Knock on wood, but because of the high water last spring and the flooded vegetation at the right time, it appears to have produced a very strong yellow perch year-class throughout most of our waters,” Power said of a species that draws anglers from near and far during the ice fishing season. “That will pay dividends to the angler three, four years from now, and maybe we’ll have a real resurgence in some quality perch lakes throughout the state.”
In the interim, Power acknowledges much of the focus just like a number of years prior, will be on walleye in North Dakota’s bigger, touted fisheries, as well as in the many prairie walleye lakes that dot the landscape.
“North Dakotans like walleye and they get plenty of them during the summer, but there are probably even more walleye fishing opportunities in winter because a lot of these new lakes don’t have the greatest summer access,” he said. “They may not have a boat ramp, but they’re accessible via ice fishing. And we have probably another dozen or so new lakes that provide keeper-sized walleye this winter.”
For a number of years, Department fisheries personnel encouraged ice anglers to take advantage of the pike fishing during the winter months. While pike populations aren’t what they once were in some waters, Power said pike fishing through the ice last winter was probably better than expected.
“I think pike and perch are going to be a little more predominant on the landscape here in a couple of years or so. And I think walleye should just keep at these levels or we might be able to even increase that a little more in the next few years,” he said. “The wonderful thing about walleye, especially in the southern half of the state, is that their growth rates are off the charts compared to what our statewide averages were historically. In some cases, all it takes is two years and you’ll have a winter fishery for 14- to 15-inch walleye.”
When it comes to yellow perch, a fan favorite during winter, Power said there will be a handful of waters that will provide the kind of perch fishing anglers have grown to appreciate.
Yet: “The perch fishing in North Dakota is not what it was, say, 10 years ago,” he said. “Once again, we’ll hopefully, in the next three to four years, have a big boom again in perch populations.”