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Going Into Winter in Good Shape

Ron Wilson

Ice fishing pole and hole at sunset

Going into last winter, with many North Dakota waters lower than they’d been in some time thanks to severe drought, Game and Fish Department 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, Department 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 last year’s drought is that it ended in pretty dramatic fashion in April with an unprecedented amount of snow in parts of the state, followed by rain.

“Knock on wood, but because of the high water this 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 just like a number of years prior, 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.”

Yellow perch being pulled out of ice hole

For a number of years, Department 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 those powerful spring storms resulted in the inundation of vegetation left high and dry during the drought, a strong 2022 pike year-class from last spring 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.”

Ice fishing
Ice fishing for northern pike in late winter

When it comes to yellow perch, a fan favorite during winter, Power said there will be a handful of waters that 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.”

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 have since rebounded and are 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.”

The Game and Fish Department has allowed darkhouse spearfishing in the state for more than 20 years and Power said attention to the winter activity is seemingly starting to plateau.

“In the early 2000s there were only a handful of lakes open to darkhouse spearfishing and we have since really, really liberalized the regulations. Now, darkhouse spearfishing is basically allowed statewide for pike,” Power said. “We’re not really growing more darkhouse participants out there, but people who do it still enjoy it and have a good time. Darkhouse spearfishing is driven by the pike population and clear water. And if you don’t have that, it can really stifle opportunity.”

The following numbers are telling. What they say is this when using 2022 as an example: There are 451 active (fishable) lakes in North Dakota (record number), and pike (not necessarily catchable size, but they’re in the lake) can be found in 255 of those waters, while yellow perch can be found in 331 and walleye in 234.

Year Active Lakes Pike Perch Walleye
1992 177 104 96 79
2002 225 140 137 78
2012 365 207 278 145
2022 451 255 331 234

100-plus Years of Ice Fishing Regulations


  • 1915 to 1950 – No fish houses were allowed.
  • 1951 – Fish houses allowed but had to be licensed (first year 53 licenses issued statewide).
  • 1900 to late 1940s – Many of the few lakes in the state were closed to ice fishing. (In 1948, lakes Metigoshe and Tewaukon, Spiritwood and Odland Dam were opened to ice fishing, but only for select species, anglers could use only one line, all holes had to be marked and only daylight fishing was allowed.)
  • 1956 – Two lines became legal.
  • 1960 – The state had about 60 fishable waters but 18 were closed to ice fishing.
  • 1978 – Became legal to release fish.
  • 1989 – About 190 fishable waters in North Dakota but 20-plus were closed to ice fishing.
  • 1993 – Year-round fishing (historically late season ice fishing was illegal).
  • 1996 – Four lines allowed statewide.
  • 1999 – Fish houses no longer had to be licensed.
  • 2001 – Darkhouse spearfishing allowed.
  • 2006 – Fish house size restrictions removed.
  • 2012 – Pike daily limit increased to 5 fish.


  • 450-plus fishable waters.
  • Virtually all waters in the state are open to ice fishing. More waters available in winter than the open water season as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge waters (Audubon and Alice) are also open.
  • Same regulations as open water fishing, plus anglers are allowed to use up to four lines.