DICKINSON, N.D. -- North Dakota winters are typically plagued by desolate blizzards and bitter temperatures. With the lack of snow around the state, outdoorsmen are suiting up with their jigging rods and depth finders to hit the ice holes — as ice fishing is one of the only winter activities still adequate in this region.
Eric Martel, of Dickinson, has been an ice fisherman for 45 years. Originally from Bismarck, Martel has been ice fishing ever since he was old enough to go with his father. The fondest memories he has had of ice fishing is bringing his children out onto the ice and watching them enjoy the sport.
Martel prefers to ice fish more north on Lake Sakakawea, particularly on the west bays such as Charging Eagle Bay and Skunk Bay.
“I enjoy fishing the smaller southwest lakes like Odland Dam, Indian Creek and Sheep Creek,” Martel said. “... Just being outside and second of all, it’s (nice to) eat the fresh fish.”
Ice and safety are number one to think about when gearing up, as well as making sure to pack the depth finder and jigging rods, Martel said.
“There’s just something about staring at a 10-inch hole waiting for your bobber to get a bite, it’s exciting as heck,” Martel said.
Scott Gangl, section leader of the Fisheries Management for North Dakota Game and Fish, encourages ice anglers to be extra mindful this season.
“The ice that we are seeing out there is variable in places. It’s mid-January but the ice we’re seeing is kind of like early ice. So you have to still be cautious when you go out. But where there is good ice, we’re hearing reports of 10 to 12 inches of ice in a lot of places that is really solid and clear, so that clear ice tends to be pretty strong,” Gangl said.
“So the good news is where there is ice it tends to be pretty good ice but people still need to be cautious about the ice because it is inconsistent this year, especially on the bigger lakes that are still pretty wide open with ice in the bays and stuff. It’s been a strange year for making ice.”
Despite warmer-than-average temperatures, its getting cold enough at night to keep the ice solid.
“The other thing too is that the lack of snow kind of helps with that because sometimes you get a good snow cover that insulates the lakes. And yeah, we’re getting up into the 50s during the day but it’s just for a few hours. As long as we get some temperatures around freezing or below freezing at night, that’s kind of what’s maintaining the ice.”
Ice fishing conditions will be determined by the colder forecast coming up next week, Gangl noted. Although the colder evening temperatures have maintained the ice out on lakes so far, people need to be careful, he added.
“The other thing about the lack of snow is that access is really good right now and that usually is the big determinator when it comes to ice fishing in the winter in terms of what we see for activity. If we get a lot of snow and a lot of drifting that occurs… you can’t drive on (the ice). That makes it really hard for people to get around and it really hampers activity out there."
Conversely, with trace amounts of snow, anglers have more options.
"They can go to a number of different lakes; they can try new spots or old spots and move around pretty well," Gangl said. "So that’s one of the good things about having a dry winter like what we’re having."
Across the state of North Dakota, walleye have peaked ice anglers' targeting interests.
“On a statewide basis, we’ve had quite an increase in the number of lakes across the state and those lakes tend to be driven by yellow perch or walleye. Historically, those new lakes, especially in the central part (with) the Prairie Pothole area of the state — those have been mostly perch fisheries. And perch fisheries tend to be most productive in the winter time and that’s what a lot of ice anglers have targeted over the years, historically."
Since 2001, the state of North Dakota has designated a season to darkhouse spearfishing, where anglers are only allowed to catch northern pike. Northern pike are typically an “aggressive species,” and catching them requires a little more tactic on the angler side, Gangl said.
Darkhouse spearing entails cutting a hole through the ice — larger than the average ice fishing hole — and placing a decoy down in the water to lure northern pike in. Once the hole is set up, the angler will sit in a dark house so it blocks all of the light coming through windows, making it the ideal condition to spear northern pike as they come in. Darkhouse spearing runs from ice-up through March 15.
“We have a variety of fish species in the state and you have some fish like northern pike where we have the different methods of catching them either using traditional angler gear or you can go spearing for them — that’s the only species of game fish that we allow for darkhouse spearing in North Dakota,” Gangl said. “That provides a little bit of a unique experience and a draw for certain anglers who want to try something different.”
When venturing out onto the ice, Gangl reminds anglers that they need to keep safety in mind as the winter temperatures have been abnormally high this time of year and not all of the lakes are completely frozen over.
“Don’t take the ice for granted. People are used to driving around by the middle of January, so if you didn’t ice fish in December and you decide, ‘Well, I’m going to go ice fishing now that it’s after the first of the year and I should be safe.’ You may not be able to drive everywhere that you want to,” Gangl warned. “So don’t take the ice for granted and treat it as though it were early ice. Just be cautious as you go out there.”
Any fish caught out of water deeper than 25 feet may suffer from barotrauma, which is a pressure related injury and can cause a fish reeled up to the surface to suffer from bulging eyes and their stomachs can protrude out of their mouths.
“It’s kind of like a diver who comes up too fast from deep water. You get ‘the bends,’ sort to speak and fish can suffer from that too. So if you’re going to be targeting fish in deep water, we ask people to be cognizant of that. If you’re planning to be fishing in deep water, there’s nothing illegal about that. But just plan on maybe keeping on what you catch. If you start catching small fish that you don’t want to keep, maybe try to target fish in some shallower spots,” Gangl said.
Catching and releasing fish out of deep water have a greater chance of not surviving, Gangl said.
Responsibility and cleaning up is also vital to keeping the environment intact, Gangel said, adding that it’s important to pick up trash, fish or gear before leaving the ice.