Skip to main navigation.

Stocking may bear nice ice fishing return

 From N.D. Game & Fish Department

Related: Fisheries Districts | Ice Safety is a Priority

North Dakota’s weather is anything but predictable. From drought to flood, the state has seen its share of weather changes in the last decade.

Man holding fish while ice fishing
Know ice depths before walking, or driving, on it.

Since about 2009, the trend has been for wetter conditions and rising lake levels, particularly in the central and eastern parts of the state. Known as the Prairie Pothole Region, many waterbodies in this region typically don’t flow out, but rather collect runoff, transforming former duck sloughs into deep prairie lakes capable of supporting fish.

Always looking to expand fishing opportunities for anglers, N.D. Game and Fish Department fisheries biologists immediately took advantage of these “new” lakes. Many were stocked with yellow perch at first, and then with walleye later. Most of these stockings were successful for one species or the other, and often established fishable populations of both.

As a result, the number of North Dakota fishing waters (excluding the Missouri River System) increased from about 293 in 2009 to 425 in 2016. But long-term weather patterns will dictate how long these “new” lakes will stay around. Many will begin to lose water and dry out when the next drought begins.

With little snow over the 2015-16 winter and variable rainfall over summer, some lakes lost water in 2016 and may be at risk of winterkill this winter. When lakes freeze, the water cannot absorb atmospheric oxygen, and when snow covers the ice, it blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants where it’s needed for photosynthesis to create oxygen. If these conditions occur, the oxygen in the water is depleted until there is not enough for fish to survive, and a winterkill occurs.

Shallow lakes are naturally more susceptible to winterkill because they have less overall water volume, and their oxygen is depleted more rapidly.

Readers may wonder why the Game and Fish Department would stock fish into shallow lakes that might winterkill in the first place. These lakes contain productive habitat, and fish can grow much faster than fish in a more established lake.

Although some of these lakes may eventually winterkill, the only investment is the fish stocked. If the lake winterkills, the losses are relatively low. But if conditions allow fish to survive and grow to catchable sizes, this small investment can provide some great rewards in opportunity and fishing.

Game and Fish would much rather see fish caught and harvested by anglers than lost to winterkill. Fisheries biologists compiled the following list of lakes across the state that currently have strong fish populations and may be at risk of winterkill in the coming months. If conditions deteriorate, fish may become lethargic and inactive as oxygen levels drop, so anglers are advised to target these waters early in the season, once ice conditions are safe for fishing.