The current status of winter fishing is better appreciated and understood with a look back at where we were when the ice retreated last spring.
“At that time, we had roughly 430 lakes in North Dakota and as we go into the new ice fishing season, we still have about 430 lakes, which is kind of hard to comprehend given how hot and dry it was last summer,” said Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief.
The focus of North Dakota ice anglers no matter the winter is typically walleye, yellow perch and northern pike.
“While you might throw in a few crappie lakes around the state, those three species are certainly the top three,” Power said. “But as we come up to a new ice fishing season, and this has changed in the last five or 10 years, the opportunities for perch and pike are fewer, but there are a lot more opportunities for walleye out there.
“We have a lot more prairie walleye lakes with still relatively young populations, but with incredible growth rates on these fish,” he added. “So, there should be a lot of catchable walleyes throughout the state, especially in central North Dakota.”
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Today, there are more than 70 prairie walleye lakes across North Dakota’s landscape, which is 70 more than in the early 1990s. And they vary in size from 200 acres to thousands of acres.
“The walleye populations in many of these lakes … it's pretty incredible the number of walleyes out there,” Power said. “Of course, anglers know that one of the problems is that the walleye bite, especially in clear lakes, tends to be in the early morning and right at sundown, so oftentimes you only have 45 minutes to an hour of good fishing. Yet, some of these prairie lakes tend to be a little more muddy, not as clear, and you can get fish all day long, which makes it even more fun.”
According to the statewide average, it takes three full growing seasons for a walleye to reach 14 inches. Yet, in these fertile prairie waters, often loaded with fathead minnows, aquatic insects and other forage, walleyes are hitting the 14-inch mark in two growing seasons, and sometimes an unheard-of 16 inches.
“What makes it fun is the turnaround from stocking the young walleye fingerlings one year and a couple of years later you have an instant fishery,” Power said. “And that's kind of where we're at with a lot of these younger fisheries right now in the state.”
While word of a good walleye bite can lure ice anglers from afar, when a North Dakota lake is rumored to be kicking out nice perch, off-the-beaten-path waters can turn into small towns overnight.
“Perch are popular probably because you can catch a bunch of them, it’s a daytime bite and they’re fun,” Power said. “It’s been the perfect storm in North Dakota over the last 20-30 years when it comes to perch fishing. Probably nowhere in North America has it been better for both quantity and quality.”
While there were once 50-plus quality perch lakes in North Dakota, Power said today that number is likely closer to a couple dozen.
Ice fishing in North Dakota accounts for about 20% of the annual fishing effort most years. Last year, with access not being an issue, that effort jumped to 25%.
Last winter a record number of residents, about 71,000, along with more than 25,000 nonresidents, participated in ice fishing in North Dakota.
Doug Leier is a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.