The reality of ice fishing impacts on North Dakota fish populations


Guest post from North Dakota Game & Fish outreach biologist Doug Lier.

We’ve seen it before. A few ice shelters can turn into a city literally overnight. Winter anglers travel from every corner of the state – some from a few states away – at the report of a hot walleye, perch or crappie bite.

Anglers wonder if the fishery can withstand the pressure? I remind myself growing up a hot perch bit wasn’t guarded by limits. That’s correct. There was a time as recently as the mid-1980s when North Dakota didn’t have a daily limit on perch.

Fast forward with more waters and limits and the fishing is even better. Coincidence? Probably not, but the return of water had much more to do with the current state of strong fisheries in North Dakota.

The well documented wet cycle beginning in 1993 is largely to thank, and Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish fisheries chief, recently explained to Ron Wilson in North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine the reality of ice fishing to dispel some of the myths:

The influence ice fishing has on the annual fishing effort in North Dakota varies greatly. If access, due mostly to heavy snows, is hampered, ice fishing may contribute just 5% to the overall fishing effort.

“But in the long term, 20 to 25% of our entire annual fishing effort is ice fishing. Last winter it was about 25%,” Power said. “That’s fairly substantial. And what’s neat about ice fishing is it provides access, fishing opportunities to waters that are oftentimes a little tougher to get on

during the summer.”

While fall 2022 turned into winter during deer season and ice was providing safe foot and ATV access early, the ice and cold turned to snow and plenty of it. If history is any indication, excessive snow and extreme cold reach a point where angler interest wanes from fighting the drifts and succumbing to the cold. Too much of a good thing in some respects.

Fishing license sales in North Dakota were down initially in 2022 but have since rebounded and are near the five-year running average. While we’ll know for sure after the licensing season ends March 31, Power doesn’t expect license numbers to climb much more.

“While I’d like that to happen, they never have in the past,” he said. “As we’ve seen in the past, our fish license sales are really driven in April and May, and we didn’t have very good weather this past April and May. You just don’t pick up that slack that you’ve lost in the spring.”

In terms of spearing, the Game and Fish Department has allowed darkhouse spearfishing in the state for more than 20 years and Power said attention to the winter activity is seemingly starting to plateau.

“In the early 2000s there were only a handful of lakes open to darkhouse spearfishing and we have since really, really liberalized the regulations,” he said. “Now, darkhouse spearfishing is basically allowed statewide for pike. We’re not really growing more darkhouse participants out there, but people who do it still enjoy it and have a good time. Darkhouse spearfishing is driven by the pike population and clear water. And if you don’t have that, it can really stifle opportunity.”