Spring Flings: Four Early Season ND Fishing Favorites

By Nick Simonson

North Dakota offers some incredible spring fishing, with its year-round season and limited pressure compared to neighboring states.  With those opportunities come the chances for a trophy fish, and a lot of fun angling when the action is fast.  If you’re looking to plan a trip, consider some of these stops around the Peace Garden State to shake off what little winter rust you might have and follow the season as the opportunities develop.

Nelson Lake near Center, ND provides fast action for early spring crappies, as the panfish prepare to spawn while ice covers most other waters in the state. Simonson Photo.

4.  Warm Water Specks.  Nelson Lake, near Center, ND is hot right now.  Actually, it’s hot all year round.  The MinnKota power plant on the lake discharges water through a cooling channel that keeps the lake a balmy 55 degrees or warmer in the winter months.  This gives the impoundment a Florida-like feel for its resident fish – mainly largemouth bass, bluegills and crappies – throughout the year, producing some of the state’s biggest specimens.  While known for the state record and some of North Dakota’s biggest largemouth bass, the crappie fishing is some of the best in the area. If you can drop a small boat in, explore the northern bays of the lake for crappies staging to spawn now into April.  The usual offerings – tubes on insert or ballhead jigs, doll flies and krystal flash jigs – will connect, and chartreuse is a go-to color.  Streamers like bright woolly buggers, marablondes and Clouser minnows get the job done on the fly. Expect slabs of up to 13 or 14 inches in both the black and white varieties, with a shot at one over 15 inches a very real possibility, while a solid average fish of 10 inches keeps the action more than worthwhile. 

The author with a hefty pike caught in early April on Channel A of Devils Lake. The channels running on the north side of the water body provide good shoreline access and a shot at big fish and a consistent bite. Simonson Photo.

3.  The Channels of Devils Lake.  Whether it’s the bridges near Church’s Ferry for northern pike making a late March run, or walleyes following them a few weeks later up the flows of Channel A, the fishing on the state’s biggest natural lake can provide the most memorable shore angling action.  The nice part is, a limited selection of tackle is all it takes to connect with either species and depending on the inflowing water – perhaps an issue this year – those tactics can work from open-up until early May.  Utilize jigs from 1/8- to 1/4-ounce with large and bright curlytailed grubs and paddletail bodies in white and other light colors to set your offering apart in the sometimes-dingy runoff.  Inexpensive spoons with a six-inch leader will also get the job done for pike on the move in their spawning efforts. Bring a big net, you never know when that 40-inch pike or 28-inch-plus walleye will be on the bite. 

Stocker-sized rainbows provide an annual target for spring fishing on the Turtle River, but stories of bigger fish that make it a few seasons in the flow also bring anglers out. Simonson Photo.

2. Turtle River Trout.  While I’ve caught trout in the driftless area of Wisconsin, the mountains of Norway, and the rocky streams of Minnesota’s north shore, my first on the fly came on the humble Turtle River located west of Grand Forks.  The stream flowing within the state park offers up a stocked population in early May which provides area fly anglers with an opportunity to unfurl a line and connect with an experience that normally would require a 6-hour drive or more to find.  What’s more, holdover fish manage to find haunts in the little flow – even within the park – allowing them a season or two to get a little bigger, and the rumor of even larger fish that find homes downstream has produced internet legends of five-pound rainbows. Give it a shot with pheasant tail nymphs in size 10 or 12, woolly buggers in size 6 or 8, or whatever half-inch, brown and buggy offering you have.  They are, after all, stocked trout, and they’re hungry!  For non-fly anglers try a Worden’s Roostertail or Mepps in-line spinner, or dark marabou jigs.

The scenic shores of the Sheyenne River hold some of the best spring smallie angling in the state. Use jigs and twisters or Texas-rigged tubes to find them around rocks, timber and other structure. Simonson Photo.

1. Sheyenne River Smallies.  No place says home to me like the Sheyenne River, having grown up plying its waters for bronzebacks up to 20 inches in length.  Spring is the time to find the king of the state’s southeastern flow and monster smallies can be caught on jigs and twisters, four-inch tubes, crankbaits and other standard bass offerings, often right up shallow as they stage and set their spawning sites.  Target the many bridge pilings right in the city limits of Valley City, from the Hi-Line Bridge on down to City Park and the Little Dam.  Consider a drift from Faust Park into town with a canoe or kayak for a memorable spring day of small-craft fishing. Cast offerings around rip-rap, inflowing water – including a number of small rills, culverts and creeks – and work both natural and man-made wood, like piles of deadheads and docks to find fish from mid-April to mid-May.  It’s been suggested that Lake Ashtabula 12 miles north of town may also hold the next state record smallie, so when things quiet down on the river, hit the impoundment along its rocky points to find those big bronzebacks that are a week or two behind their river cousins in their seasonal movements. 

Odds are you have your favorite places for walleyes, pike, bass, trout, panfish and more when spring opens up.  Add some of my favorites to the list and mix things up a bit to find more action and a ton of variety for your fishing this season, taking advantage of all the state has to offer with its incredible options.

Featured Photo: Remember Your First. The author with the first big walleye he ever caught on the train tracks of Channel A nearly 20 springs ago. The site still remains a destination for many anglers when the waters begin to open up on the state’s biggest natural lake. Simonson Photo.

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