Mother lode on ice: ND lake serves up memorable perch bonanzaSOMEWHERE NEAR DEVILS LAKE — The chatter echoing from across the frozen lake told the story: The boys were on fish.
By: Brad Dokken, The Dickinson Press
SOMEWHERE NEAR DEVILS LAKE — The chatter echoing from across the frozen lake told the story:
The boys were on fish.
“Jason, get over here,” one of them hollered.
They didn’t have to say it twice.
Jason Mitchell was hosting four of us on this late-November ice fishing excursion to a body of water that will remain nameless for reasons of courtesy. Host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show and a longtime fishing and waterfowl hunting guide, Mitchell, of Devils Lake, had stumbled across a yellow perch mother lode a few days earlier, poking and prodding his way across thin ice and drilling some 200 holes in the process.
Mitchell said he was about to quit exploring when he struck gold — or, in this case, yellow — in the form of perch up to 14 inches. The fishing he encountered is just one example of the opportunities that await North Dakota anglers willing to get out and explore.
Thanks to a series of wet years, North Dakota now has 400 bodies of water with fish, compared with 168 in 1988, according to the Game and Fish Department. Many of these new lakes receive little angling pressure; some don’t even have names.
“It’s some of the best fishing you’re going to find, but you can’t go to the bait shop or website chat boards because the guys fishing them aren’t telling anybody,” Mitchell said. “You have to do some of the research on your own. People are a lot more tight-lipped, so you’ve got to go out and make your own luck.
“There’ll probably be some dead ends, but when the stars align, the rewards can be tremendous.”
Such was the case this day, when Mitchell and his fishing partners — Jeff Andersen of Baxter, Minn., John Hoyer of Minnetonka, Minn., and Joe Andersen of Devils Lake — had the ice to themselves; I rounded out the crew.
Mitchell and Jeff Andersen are members of “The Ice Team,” a group of 25 top ice fishermen working to spread the gospel of ice fishing on behalf of the Clam Corp., maker of the Clam and Fish Trap series of portable shelters. Catching fish was on the agenda, but Jeff Andersen, a fishing guide and professional photographer, also had photos to shoot.
That wouldn’t be a problem.
It took some hole-hopping, but when the Andersens and Hoyer found the school, the perch often hit before jigs could reach the bottom. At times, the screens of the Vexilar depth-finder units we used to mark fish below us were covered with blobs of red measuring several feet.
The blobs were perch — lots of 'em — and with about 6 inches of clear, solid ice, staying on the fish was easy.
A better start to the ice fishing season would have been difficult to envision.
“That was the pinnacle of perch fishing,” Jeff Andersen said later.
The action got to the point, Hoyer said, where he welcomed a lull.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to relax without 10 of them under you,” he said at one point during a break in the mayhem.
Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the perch fishing Mitchell and crew encountered is the second wave of a boom that began more than 10 years ago.
According to Power, many of the small lakes started as minnow sloughs until the wet cycle began in the early '90s. Game and Fish then stocked some of the rising lakes with perch.
“Initially, a lot of these big wetland basins had no other fish in them,” Power said. “If you can get a new water body with no other predators, those are the ones where perch really thrive.”
Through trial and error, Power said, Game and Fish biologists found that perch and fathead minnows don’t coexist very well because the minnows compete with young perch for food.
As minnows took over, perch fishing declined. Power said Game and Fish biologists then stocked walleyes, which thrived in the minnow-filled lakes until they cropped back the forage. Perch numbers then recovered in some of the lakes, setting the stage for a second boom that is just getting started.
“My personal belief is that this second boom will not be as great as the first one,” Power said. “This winter should be good, but the next couple of winters should be even better.”
Walleyes and pike
Power said pike and walleyes provide better fishing opportunities than perch in most of the new lakes. In the past five to 10 years, Power said, North Dakota has gained about 30 new walleye lakes totaling 45,000 acres.
Most of the lakes average 400 to 800 acres, he said, with depths to 30 feet, which is relatively deep by North Dakota standards.
The productivity, Power said, is “off the charts.”
“Our statewide average for walleyes to reach 14 inches is three growing seasons,” he said. “A lot of these lakes, we’re getting 15 inches in two years.”
Power said the “epicenter” of the new-lake boom generally follows a line from Sargent and Richland counties in the southeast part of the state northwest to Minot.
“A lot of these are virgin fisheries,” he said. “Most of them are young; another year or two, and they’ll be really good.”
That’s already the case with northern pike, which are the big story in North Dakota’s shallow-lake bonanza. According to Power, North Dakota now has more than 220 shallow lakes with northern pike weighing 5 to 7 pounds.
In response, Game and Fish in April increased the statewide pike limit from three fish to five, with a possession limit of 10.
Power said Game and Fish is working to promote pike, a species overlooked by many anglers, touting its fighting qualities and taste. Game and Fish also has a link on its website with instructions for removing the “Y” bones that cause many anglers to turn up their noses.
Pike also reproduce naturally in the small lakes, where walleyes generally are reliant on stocking.
“Pike are easy to catch, they bite during the day so it’s great for anybody,” Power said. “Out of cold water, they’re excellent eating. We want people to catch and keep pike and consume them.”
For perch fishing enthusiasts, the downside to pike is they generally decimate perch populations in all but the very largest bodies of water. Case in point, he said, is Lake Laretta near Michigan, which enjoyed a short-lived perch boom in the late '90s until pike took over.
“Once pike get into a perch lake, your days are numbered,” Power said.
Power said the Game and Fish Department maintains a listing of “active lakes” on its website, along with information on access points and stocking reports. The lakes must have public access before Game and Fish will stock them, he said.
“Just talk to the locals or bait vendors or read the reports,” Power said. “Just do a little homework.”
As Mitchell demonstrated last week, the rewards can be considerable.
“That’s what I enjoy the most,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me to strike out. I can’t tell you how many of these little lakes I’ve tried that didn’t pay off. But when you do find them, it’s pretty special.”