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North Dakota faces potential fishing downturn due to winter kill effect

Winter kill effect caused by a prolonged winter may impacting fish populations, requiring restocking of lakes sooner rather than later.

Dickinson Dike 2022.JPG
Dickinson Dike will be one of many areas the ND Game & Fish Department will be looking at closely this spring to determine the number of fish needed for restocking so anglers will have abundant opportunities soon.
North Dakota Game & Fish Department

NORTH DAKOTA – Fishing takes a great deal of patience, but according to data and speculation from the North Dakota Game & Fish Department the 2022-23 snow season could cause some downturn in the overall future harvest and make the pursuit more problematic for anglers.

It’s tough to go anywhere without hearing complaints about the weather this “spring,” and the local bait-and-tackle shop is no different. But the state’s wildlife officers are warning that “winter kill” could create issues in the near- and long-term future and result in the need for restocking of North Dakota lakes sooner rather than later.

“Winter kill” is created when the snow resting on already-thick ice inhibits the photosynthesis in lake plants and grasses, which not only limits the oxygen supply of the water itself, but also could result in a lack of spawning grounds for fish until they eventually fill in or grow back completely. The length of time the ice has been covered also plays a role in winter kill. This has been a particularly long winter and as plants die the decomposition also uses up even more oxygen, which compounds the problems.

“It’s going to have a pretty big impact on a lot of our lakes,” said Southwest District Fisheries Biologist Jeff Merchant. “We’ve been monitoring oxygen levels in our lakes for most of the winter and several of them have pretty low oxygen or have at some point this winter.”

In Dickinson, employees at area sporting-goods stores have reported the recent ice-fishing season as poor – on occasion – and with the massive, record snowfall it’s going to be awhile before anybody can get outside and cast a line. But once they get there, the snowfall might already have created the prospect of not many nibbles on the lines dropping into the water from docks and watercraft, alike.


The most-impacted species are liable to be walleye/sauger, pike and muskies, bass and channel catfish. But the populations of bluegill, crappie and perch also will be hit – at least in the short-term – until restocking efforts start to take hold.

Stocking Bluegills.JPG
The North Dakota Game & Fish Department will soon be restocking bluegills in area ponds and lakes, such as in this photo from 2022.
North Dakota Game & Fish Department

Lakes in the Southwest North Dakota region that are most likely to see difficulties include Spring Lake and Kalina Dam in Bowman County, Larson Lake in Hettinger County and Cedar Lake in Slope County. But many of the community fisheries in the southwest also have reported low oxygen this winter and likely will experience some winter-kill, including Dickinson Dike, Beach City Pond, Krieg’s Pond, Gaebe Pond, Castle Rock Dam and Glen Ullin Reservoir, according to test data and initial analysis.

“We’ve actually had some anglers at those lakes with underwater cameras and they’ve already seen some dead fish this winter,” Merchant said. “We’ll be pretty busy this spring moving fish around and stocking lakes.”

That requires the NDGFD to shuffle fish from one lake to another to jump-start the process, or outright purchase of fish to fill-in-the-blanks at lakes where the danger was the worst. Some of that initial investigatory work could begin as early as next week, when temperatures are predicted to climb into the 70s and the ice begins to thaw.

Tschida spring 2022.jpg
Last-year's ice cover was thick, but not nearly as thick as 2023's prediction. That could impact the "winter kill" of fish and result in the need for significant restocking of area lakes and ponds, officials say.
North Dakota Game & Fish Department

But, “I would guess that it will be towards mid-April or the end of April, somewhere in there,” Merchant said. “Once the ice goes out, we’ll actually put nets in some lakes where we know we have fish that are over-abundant – especially panfish, perch and bluegill – and we’ll trap them out of those lakes and move to the lakes where we need them.”

The numbers of fish are determined by the size of the lakes they are being moved to, Merchant said, and some of the smaller lakes – less than 50 acres – require only a few hundred to 1,000 adult fish, like perch or bluegills, for restocking purposes.

Some of the trouble also could be mitigated by the trout-restocking program during the spring, which results in “catchable-sized” rainbow trout being dropped into ponds statewide. These can serve as “instant fisheries,” Merchant said, and the trout weigh roughly a half-pound each.

State officials want to ensure that not all the news is “doom-and-gloom,” however, and they have seen some positive oxygen-levels and initial results at lakes and ponds in the southwest and could provide some “good angling opportunities” this spring/summer, including Heart Butte Reservoir in Lake Tschida/Grant County, which Merchant said offered “really good numbers and all sizes of smallmouth bass, white bass, and channel catfish, good numbers of ‘eater’-size walleye” with a few bigger fish and good numbers of big black crappie with good numbers of yellow perch and northern pike.


Tschida stocking.jpg
Fish-stocking will soon be under way at area lakes, by the ND Game & Fish Department, using equipment like that shown here at Lake Tschida from 2022.
North Dakota Game & Fish Department

Also, Indian Creek Dam in Hettinger County is seeing solid numbers of smallmouth bass and walleye, along with Sheep Creek Dam in Grant County with excellent black crappie and bluegill totals with a few bigger bluegills and largemouth bass of all sizes and a fair number of walleyes. Meanwhile, North Lemmon Lake in Adams County could be looking at numerous largemouth bass and good numbers of bigger walleyes.

"For walleye and pike — those species are a little different — when we have lakes like Cedar Dam, which will probably see winter kill, we had really good walleyes going in there so it's kind of a shame that it's going to winter kill," Merchant said. "To get those stocked back we get fingerlings from the hatchery up by Garrison Dam, and so that's how we get those stocked back. And those will get stocked back in late May, somewhere in there, and the same with the pike: We get fingerlings from the hatchery.

"And those will take a few years to grow up to catchable-size. Overall, these lakes will get stocked right away, but it'll take a few years to get them back to where they have some catchable fish and good opportunities. But we have a few lakes that are going to make it through the winter fine and still have some good fishing."

For more information, please visit https://gf.nd.gov/ or call 701-328-6300.

Gaylon is a sportswriter from Jensen Beach, Fla., but has lived all over the world. Growing up with an athletic background gave him a love of sports that led to a journalism career in such places as Enid, Okla., Alamogordo, N.M., Pascagoula, Miss. and Viera, Fla. since 1998. His main passion is small-town community sports, particularly baseball and soccer.
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