DAKOTA REPORT: North Dakota Ice Fishing History



by Doug Leier


When I think of what “good ice fishing” means, I have to approach it from two different time sets.


In one set, I think of myself as a young kid in LaMoure in the 1980s, ice fishing with my dad. We’d spend our time sitting on 5-gallon buckets and even straw bales, fighting the wind to land a few perch at Seefeldt Dam.


Or we’d make what seemed like a long one-hour trek north to Lake Ashtabula. In my eyes, the perch fishing there was the best ever. There was no limit, and we’d fill a bucket or so and spend the dark cold night filleting perch after our excursion.


To me, winter fishing couldn’t have gotten much better. But it has.


To say a lot has changed doesn’t do justice to how much North Dakota’s fishing opportunities have changed since I was a kid. We now have twice as many fishing waters as we did back then, and most of them are producing quality catches of walleye, pike or perch.


That’s the second time set I’ve thought about – what I know today as an adult.

But last month when the November 2014 issue of North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine came out, it contained a feature that reminded me there is a third time set to consider, one that goes back 30 years prior to the 1980s, when my dad was a kid.


The article tells us that icefishing really didn’t start catching on in North Dakota until the 1950s and early1960s.

141217 best icefishing“When the water gets ‘hard’ enough to support the weight of a car and a fish house, North Dakota’s growing army of hardy fishermen take to the lakes and streams,” wrote John Hewston in North Dakota OUTDOORS in 1959. “Although winter fishing has been an established sport of considerable magnitude for many years in neighboring states in the lakes region, it is still just catching on in this prairie state.”

Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief, said when reservoirs such as Froelich, Short Creek and Sweet Briar were constructed in late 1950s and early 1960s, fishing opportunities increased, no matter the time of year.

“Historically, we didn’t have a lot of natural lakes in North Dakota,” Power said. “With the construction of a number of reservoirs, people now had somewhere to fish.”

It wasn’t until 1951 that anglers were finally allowed by law to fish out of ice houses that were licensed with Game and Fish, making a day on the ice in just about any kind of weather comfortable.

In the early 1950s, fewer than 100 ice houses were licensed with the agency, but a decade later the number had climbed to more than 1,000. Today, of course, you might find several hundred fish houses on Devils Lake alone on any given winter weekend.

Power said ice fishing in the state really took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks, in part, to a boom of big yellow perch at Devils Lake.

“Anglers were taking 2- to 3-pound perch through the ice and lots of them,” he said. “Just the general interest in ice fishing was starting to pick up at that time. In a modern age where Lithium ion powered augers are now replacing gas. It’s hard for most people under age 40 to imagine using a hand auger.”

It’s also hard to imagine fishing getting even better than it is right now. But even if it does, it’s a good winter to get out there and enjoy and appreciate what we have right now.

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