An Open Water Opportunity

By Nick Simonson

The temperature gauge on the truck read 39 degrees as I tore up the blacktop of Highway 25 north of Mandan. It was nice for late winter as the melting drifts in the ditches gave way to the matted beige grasses below.  The first symptoms of spring fever were beginning to creep in and being relegated to short rods for the past few months had left me longing for open water and an early spring. But with three feet of ice still holding those dreams in check most everywhere across the northern plains, I knew there was one place to turn for my fix – Nelson Lake.

Located a few miles southeast of Center, N.D., Nelson Lake was formed in 1968 with the damming of Square Butte Creek to provide a cooling water reservoir for the Milton R. Young Station coal power plant which began producing electricity in 1970.  The plant is operated by Minnkota and the nearby Center Mine, owned by BNI Coal, provides the coal supply.

According to Ben Fladhammer, Communications Manager with Minnkota, water is taken in near the dam on the southeastern end of the reservoir by the facility and utilized for cooling, boiler makeup and other station uses in the power production process.  After the water is used, treated and tested to be in compliance with state and federal standards, it is discharged along a cooling canal that runs the south shore of the lake.  Due to this process, the lake does not freeze over and open water fishing can be had year round.

“The water temperature coming out of Young Station is around 75 degrees, the lake typically stays around 60 degrees,” Fladhammer explained, “that temperature will vary a bit depending on outdoor temperature and if both generating units at the plant are running,” he continued.

At the discharge point rests a rip-rapped shoreline, a fishing pier and a boat launch.  Upon my arrival with a medium spinning rod and an ultralight panfish rod in hand, I strolled down to the metal pier and approached the lone angler, who introduced himself as Bob.  As he did, he hoisted a nice black crappie over the railing.

“I was going to ask you how it was going, but that answers my question,” I said with a chuckle.

“I’ve been here for an hour and that was my first one,” he replied, happy with the turn of his luck.

Crappie populations in Nelson Lake are at a peak, and large fish like this white crappie caught by Bob Mantz of Mandan, N.D. can be found with some frequency. Simonson Photo

I unhooked the orange Road Runner spinner dressed with a chartreuse curly-tailed grub and fired a cast into the steaming water that eddied around the dock and Bob followed suit with a small pink jigging spoon.  In regular cadence, we began snapping our rods back and bringing crappies in on nearly every single cast for the next 20 minutes.

Multiple year classes were represented in the school that hung two-to-six feet below the surface in the warm water, but many nice fish in the nine-to-11-inch range came up and over the metal rail during the run. It was a mix of black and white crappies too, but mostly the former, as the occasional barred fish was mixed in. The bite slowed a bit after the initial rush but remained consistent all afternoon.

According to North Central Fisheries District Supervisor Jason Lee with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F), crappie populations, year class distribution and larger fish are all at a peak right now on Nelson Lake.

“The crappies are doing really well, especially the white crappies as to larger fish – we’ve seen an increase,” Lee stated, “the lake is heavy with larger adult fish and the population has done well,” he concluded, while suggesting bluegill populations are following the same trend with many quality-sized fish now available to anglers.

With my fix for open water action satisfied after releasing three or four dozen crappies, my eyes turned to an angler down the shore tossing a large plastic grub for the lake’s legendary largemouth bass.  They then shifted to my larger rod rigged with a watermelon tube on a 4/0 offset worm hook.

The state record largemouth bass, weighing 8 pounds, 8 ounces at just 22 inches in length, benefitting from the warmer water and elongated growing season, was caught from the power plant lake in 1983 by Leon Rixen of Minot, and the record has stood for three decades.  Bob remarked that on several trips in recent years, his nephew has caught many big ones that have fallen just a couple ounces short of the mark. Lee’s observations in surveying and managing the Nelson Lake fishery reflect angler accounts and suggest the next record will again come from the water.

“I would say it’s very likely, and as far as producing big bass, it’s our best lake in the state,” he related, crediting the warmer water and abundant forage, adding, “electrofishing last spring showed a good number of bass with some big fish; as far as the future of Nelson, it’s looking very bright.”

A lone angler in a boat drags a rig for bass on Nelson Lake while receding snowbanks melt into the hillside. Simonson Photo

As I prepared to explore the shoreline, I looked over to see Bob’s ultralight bent over in a pounding arch right next to the dock.  The large fish below came to the surface, and I swore it was a drum as it flashed by.  But when it turned on its side and Bob confirmed the species, he handed me his rod and reached under the railing to lip a monster white crappie that was at least 15 inches long and perhaps the biggest I had ever seen. I snapped a photo for him before he casually flipped the beast back into the water.

With the bigger rod in my other hand, I was torn between staying on the pier for a crack at another crappie of that size and looking for largemouth, but I turned Bob’s rod back over to him and proceeded to the nearby rocky point at the end of the discharge canal. After five or ten minutes of creeping the offering along the rocks and bottom debris, I felt a summer-like thunk and dropped the tip of the rod while tightening the line, before setting the hook in an exaggerated overhead sweep.  After a brief battle, a 16-inch largemouth, silver-green in coloration, came to hand.  Content with having connected, I released the fish and went back to the crappies that Bob had reignited while I battled the bass, and I stuck with the specks until the end of my afternoon outing.

The warm, year-round open water of Nelson Lake not only provides a long growing season for fish, but also a perfect all-winter residence for bird species like the Canada geese that plied the waters and the bald eagles which circled over us shore anglers and the lone boat fisherman working the back side of the delta of steaming water spilling out of the cooling canal.   The late-winter experience on one of North Dakota’s most unique waters was an ideal remedy for the start of spring fever and provided hopes of a return trip in the near future with a good chance at a big bass, crappie or bluegill (or perhaps all three) somewhere down the line.

(Featured Photo: The author hoists a late-winter largemouth bass from the warm waters of the cooling canal outflow on Nelson Lake, while the Milton R. Young Station steams in the background. Simonson Photo)

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