By Nick Simonson
They’re out there under the ice, scattered throughout North Dakota’s slough country; jumbo perch that just a couple of decades ago were limited to major reservoirs in the Peace Garden State along with the noted population in Devils Lake. With the onset of the wet cycle experienced in the upper plains since the mid-1990s, sloughs that were either entirely dry at one point, or were mere potholes of stagnant water expanded and connected, forming lakes with depths that went over 10 feet. With the stocking of fish, most notably yellow perch, the number of fishable waters in North Dakota, particularly during the winter season, has more than doubled according to Greg Power, ND Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Fisheries Division Chief.
“To understand the perch fishing in North Dakota, we probably need to take a step back a couple of decades. Perch have really benefitted from the water on the landscape. Go back to the 1980s, again, we had well less than 200 water bodies in the state, today we have 450. Likewise, the perch waters if you go back just 20 years, we were at less than 150 waters in the state and today we’re over 300. There’s just a lot more opportunity out there,” Power explains of the expansion of perch fishing destinations.
The number of lakes on the landscape continues to grow, despite last year’s drought conditions as newly-developed waters are stocked around the state. The ideal body of water for perch stocking is one that has just formed and has limited populations of other fish species – most notably fathead minnows – before the perch are stocked. Younger stocked perch feed on the readily available invertebrate species found in most waters like small aquatic worms and underwater stages of insects including mayfly and stonefly larvae, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. When it comes to smaller prey items, fathead minnows can outcompete young perch in the early going, but in those lakes where the baitfish populations are limited, young perch quickly take hold and grow. Otherwise, it may take a few growing seasons for a viable population of perch to overcome the competition with the minnows and then start eating into their numbers, allowing the next generations of perch to grow a bit faster.
“They’re really prairie wetlands, they’re sloughs, and the perch do very well in there because they first off can reproduce pretty well, there’s vegetation, so they get the reproduction taken care of most springs. Also, probably the biggest thing is just that these prairie wetlands – whether it’s a perch or a duck, a mallard, it doesn’t matter – they’re highly productive. They have a lot of food there, desirable food for the perch, and there’s been ample growth on these perch in these new lakes.” Power details.
“There’s probably 30 to 50 of those waters that have perch certainly in that 14-inch range.”— Greg Power, NDG&F Fisheries Division Chief
Dozens of established perch lakes now provide great opportunities for anglers looking for consistent action and a shot at those rare fish over 14 inches in length through the ice. Due to their base in flooded sloughs, many of those opportunities are only accessible in the winter for ice fishing, with no boat ramps and minimal shoreline access during the open water season. Instead, anglers are often able to walk onto the frozen surface from adjacent public lands, public rights of way via roads, or through agreement with adjacent landowners with the NDG&F. While some lakes are well known, and others are newer and near virgin territory for anglers, all stocking and survey reports are available at gf.nd.gov, and they detail dozens of lakes with above-average catches in terms of numbers and size.
“We’ve got 300 waters out there. There’s probably 30 to 50 of those waters that have perch certainly in that 14-inch range. There’s a possibility in probably 20 different counties in North Dakota right now,” Power suggests for true jumbos which may threaten the current state record of the two-pound 15-ounce yellow perch caught in March of 1982 on Devils Lake by Kyle Smith of Carrington, now nearing its fortieth anniversary, and is currently the fifth-longest standing angling record in the state.
One concern this winter, however, is the abundance of snow that has fallen on the southeastern section of North Dakota where the vast majority of these slough-based perch waters are located. Coming out of the drought last summer, many of these lakes were down 18 to 24 inches heading into the ice fishing season. While the increased snow received in the front half of winter will help raise those popular perch lakes back up in the spring, the heavy covering over the ice can result in decreased oxygen levels in these smaller bodies of water in late winter, causing winterkill of existing fish populations. For this reason, NDG&F Southeast Fisheries District Biologist Michael Johnson suggests that anglers get out there while the fishing is good.
“With the perch, having them get hit hard probably isn’t the worst thing, and there’s a couple reasons for that. Perch can overpopulate and get stunted over time, so some harvest is good. Then also, a lot of these lakes, they’re potholes, pothole sloughs. Twenty years ago they didn’t even have water. If you get a winter like this one’s shaping up to be, if we get a bunch more snow, the potential for winterkill is there, so then you’d be starting over anyways. I guess I would get it while the getting is good.” Johnson explains, referencing the lifespan of the popular panfish tops out at around eight years.
A listing of yellow perch fisheries can be found at gf.nd.gov/fishing/where-to-fish by selecting “Yellow Perch” under the Popular Fish Species tab. NDG&F agents monitor dissolved oxygen levels throughout the state in late February and early March to predict possible winterkill events and then rely on angler observations and reports of those events when dead fish are encountered after ice-out in the spring.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Jumbo Up! Yellow perch of over 12 inches – and some topping 14 – are available in dozens of lakes throughout North Dakota. Simonson Photo.