Some North Dakota anglers got an early start to ice fishing this season, and there’s still a lot of winter hard-water fishing opportunities to come.

To provide a general overview of what to expect, here are some excerpts from a recent interview with North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief Greg Power on the agency’s weekly webcast, “Outdoors Online.”

Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief.
Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief.

Q. How did the weather from early fall into December affect winter fishing?

A. We came off the wettest September ever, and then the cold weather followed in October and into early November. We had people ice fishing before Halloween. It was the earliest ice-up in recent memory. Unfortunately, the second half of November warmed up. Warmer temperatures coupled with running water and wind caused unsafe ice conditions until early December.

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Q. What are the components that create good ice fishing opportunity?

A. It’s weather dependent with fish populations, and then it’s weather when it comes to ice fishing. In an open winter where you don't have a lot of snow and access onto the lakes is good, about 25% of our entire annual fishing effort is ice fishing.

Q. How are fish populations going into the winter?

A. Today's fish populations are based on conditions from the past three years, and during that period we were drying out. So, our perch populations are not where they were 10 years ago. Where we've seen a shift in the last 10 years for sure is walleye fishing. And we actually will probably have a few more very good walleye fishing lakes this winter vs. last. The pike numbers are still fairly strong. They're probably down from, again, five or 10 years ago, but there is ample pike opportunity out there. So all things considered, the fish are there.

Q. What does the excessive precipitation this fall mean to fisheries?

A. Our waters throughout virtually all of the state are probably at or very near record high elevations. In the long term, the water will be good for fish, but more immediately, we may have some access issues as winter moves along. The cattails that surround many of our waters will catch even more snow than normal. But again, it bodes well for the future, as far as the water part of it.

Q. Do the high water levels influence potential winterkill?

A. At this point, we are in good shape, especially with all that new water. If we hadn't had this new water, and lakes had frozen up, and we had a normal winter, we probably could have lost another 30-40 lakes. The worst recipe for winterkill is an early ice-up, immediately followed by lots of snow. Couple that with this time of the year, when the day length is the shortest, that means there is less light penetration into the water, resulting in a lack of photosynthesis. And without photosynthesis, there is no dissolved oxygen produced by aquatic plants, resulting in winterkills of fish. Right now, we don't really have a lot of concern, but that can change throughout the winter.

Leier is an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.