Last weekend, there were enough ice houses on Lake Audubon to warrant their own ZIP code.
By Tuesday, only a few permanent shacks were left on the main body of the lake near the Totten Trail ramp. That is the nature of ice fishing in North Dakota.
Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said, on a scale of 1 to 10, he would rate ice fishing these days a solid 9 — maybe even a 10.
Every winter, access onto the lake is an issue, and, so far, the weather has cooperated with anglers.
Much of Lake Audubon, for instance, had a solid 9 to 10 inches of good ice last weekend. Lakes farther north had even more, according to Power.
Last winter, the ice was late coming onto most lakes, and, this year, with no major blizzards, anglers have been hitting the water hard.
“In North Dakota, ice fishing has become a big deal,” Power said.
A lot of the popularity of ice fishing has to do with improvements in equipment and technology, including modern ice houses that have all the comforts of home.
Power said ice fishing constitutes about 25 percent of all of the fishing effort each year across North Dakota.
The other part of the equation, when it comes to the popularity of ice fishing, is opportunity.
With around 400 managed lakes in North Dakota, anglers have a lot of locations — and a lot of species — from which to choose.
It is, however, North Dakota, and walleyes are still kind, regardless of the time of year.
And where walleyes are concerned, Power said fishing is as good as it has ever been.
“What’s true in the summer is true in the winter,” said Power, adding that most of the walleye lakes in the state have at least average walleye numbers and some that border on spectacular.
There are the standard winter walleye lakes, such as Devils Lake, Audubon and the lower reach of Lake Oahe, that are traditionally good for walleyes, especially during early ice fishing.
But Power said many of the smaller lakes in the state have blossomed over the past couple of decades.
When the wet cycle began about 20 years, many smaller sloughs and lakes filled and grew, sporting good populations of yellow perch.
However, there is a window when the opportunity to catch 10-inch or bigger perch closes, according to Power, who said fisheries crews used that population boom to trap and transport perch from lake to lake, establishing a strong forage base for walleyes and northern pike.
Once the window for perch closed, Power said the strategy became stocking walleyes in many of the smaller lakes to take advantage of the forage.
It has worked. Bodies of water, such as Lake Darling, have always been solid during the winter, but other small, regional lakes, such as Dry Lake, Alkaline Lake, Brekken-Holmes and Green Lake, have turned into hot spots.
And while walleyes still rate the top species for ice anglers, there are certainly other fish in the lake.
One of the issues is many anglers don’t target other species, such as northern pike, bluegill, trout or crappies, through the ice, but there are opportunities.
Northern pike continue to be one of those species that is underutilized by anglers.
Pike numbers are at record level, and now is a prime time to get out if looking to land one in the 20-pound range.
The usual spots, such as Beulah Bay, Hazen Bay and Wolf Creek on Lake Sakakawea, are tried and true locations.
But smaller lakes, such as Crooked Lake, Baumgartner Lake, Cherry Lake and Helen Lake, provide good smaller pike numbers, if looking for eaters or fish to pickle.
The boom on pike also has spurred more interest in darkhouse spearfishing.
During the couple years, registration for darkhouse has been setting records, according to Power.
Compared when darkhouse spearfishing was new to North Dakota — only about 25 lakes were open to it — darkhouse spearfishing is open statewide.
If pan fish are more your style, there are more than just a few lakes from which to choose.
Jamestown Reservoir and Pipestem Reservoir have become solid fisheries for crappies in recent years.
Oahe and Devils Lake have solid crappie numbers, but those lakes tend to be hit-and-miss.
For bluegills, Lake Metigoshe is tough to top and also a good pike lake.
There are also a few decent trout lakes in the area.
Power said the message is ice fishing is as good as it has ever been in North Dakota.