Going into last winter, with many North Dakota waters lower than they’d been in some time thanks to severe drought, N.D. Game and Fish Department (NDGF) fisheries managers worried that declining water levels and other factors would lead to significant winterkill.
Turns out, it wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated.
“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, NDGF 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’re going into winter in good shape.”
The good news about the drought is it ended in dramatic fashion in April 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 anticipates much of the focus 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 will provide keeper-sized walleye this winter.”
For a number of years, NDGF 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.
“It was really encouraging, as we saw a fair amount of interest from anglers,” he said. “And the pike were biting, which was a good thing.”
Power said pike are like perch, as they rely on flooded vegetation to help boost natural reproduction. Understanding that and knowing last year’s powerful spring storms resulted in the inundation of vegetation left high and dry during the drought, a strong 2022 pike year-class is likely.
“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 a handful of waters 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.”
ICE FISHING PROVIDES ACCESS
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 right 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.”
Fishing license sales in North Dakota were down initially in 2022, but rebounded to near the five-year running average. But even with an open winter and good drive-on ice around the holidays when most anglers venture outdoors, 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.”
Visit www.gf.nd.gov for fishing regulations, lake and stocking information, ice fishing safety recommendations, or to purchase licenses online.
Ron Wilson is editor of North Dakota OUTDOORS, which published an earlier version of this story in its November 2022 issue.
FREE FISHING DAYS
North Dakota residents may fish (except for paddlefish) without a resident fishing license on designated free fishing days each year. Free fishing days for 2023 include: Jan. 1, June 3-4 and Dec. 30-31.