Like many, this winter has been a bit a bit of a disappointment when it comes to fishing. With the lakes not freezing over until late in the season, and then the quality of the ice not being great, many an angler chose to stay home. So when the opportunity came up to head out to Northeastern South Dakota’s Glacial Lakes region, well, the invite was definitely too good to pass up.

I was met at the Aberdeen, S.D. Airport by Casey Weismantel from HuntFishSD, the hunting and fishing part of the Aberdeen Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. This part of the country is very friendly to those of us that crave the great outdoors. I’ve been out that way pheasant hunting before, and can’t wait to go back. South Dakota, in my opinion, is the sleeper state destination for hunting and fishing. It gets overlooked, with the exception of pheasants and perch, but it shouldn’t be.

We based our fun at Hidden Hill Lodge by Roslyn, S.D., a first rate hunting and fishing lodge with excellent fishing literally feet from the front door. It was there I met up with my guide for the trip, professional walleye angler and guide Dennis Foster. The area is well known for quality fish, and maps of the lakes are available at local stores, but it helped to have someone who knew the area and knows how to quickly find fish. I was jacked up.

Finding fish

Why do it? 10+ pound walleyes will make you forget about anything bad in your life!
Why do it? 10+ pound walleyes will make you forget about anything bad in your life!

Start out by finding the right type of bottom. The fish are staging for the spring spawning cycle and Foster had us on gradually slopping, rocky bottoms. He drilled a lot of holes and tested the depth using a Vexilar flasher. If you want to catch fish consistently, you need a flasher. We were fishing minnows and jigs for some holes, and you would see the line indicating a fish was close to your bait. You’d then slowly raise up the minnow, causing the line to follow the bait up, Boom. You’d get a hit.

We had a Yeti portable fish house with us to use as a base of operations when on the ice. In it was a 32-inch flat screen TV (Yeah, I know – roughing it). Foster hooked up a Vexilar Double Vision flasher camera combo to the screen and we could literally watch our jigs on the bottom and see the fish come in. If it sounds cool, it was! It was also a great way to see how much your line reacts to subtle twitches to the rod and how the fish reacted. When I was outside of the house, I used my own Aqua-Vu Micro camera to check the bottom condition and see what was going on. Cameras are a great way to check what’s going on and find fish.

Mobility

Mobility is a key factor in finding big fish through the ice.
Mobility is a key factor in finding big fish through the ice.

One thing about fishing on the ice—if you’re not on the fish, you need to move. Foster uses the same thing I do, and ATV. In his case he uses a Honda Rubicon 500 EPS Deluxe. I have a lot of experience with these ATVS and he made a great choice. He had it set up with a custom rack box that holds a bait bucket, gear and a power auger. He also had J-Wheelz installed. J-Wheelz add traction and floatation and can be the difference when getting through snow and mud, as well as the worst-case scenario – breaking through the ice. The Honda also pulled the 19-foot Yeti House, loaded with gear and anglers without even a hint of struggle. You can see what I think of the Honda here.

Cold

One thing you have to battle is staying warm. In South Dakota, it’s not just the actual temperature, it’s the wind that gets you. I found a great balance with a sensible base layer and then dressing right. I wore a Frabill I-3 Ice Suit. This setup is warm and beats the winds too. The bibs have padding in the knees and seat, and the jacket is outfitted with ice spikes in case of an accident, and the perfect cuff for outdoor activities. The cut is also important as you’re not impeded by the clothing. I’ve been wearing the suit all winter and it still looks new, even after wearing it snowmobiling and sledding. And let’s face it, the Woodsman-themed pattern is just cool.

For gloves and a hat, I went with Carhartt Force Fleece. I hate gloves that are bulky, and the Carhartt gloves are just warm enough to keep you from freezing, yet are very mobile. And speaking of mobile, the index fingers are mobile-friendly, letting you snap those all-important pictures to post to friend’s Facebook pages.

And then there’s boots too. I cannot say enough great things about my all-time favorite footwear—Wood-N- Stream Maniacs . These are without a doubt, the most comfortable boots on the market. I have been beating them up for a year now and they are holding up great. With just 400grams of Thinsulate, they were completely warm enough on the ice. I slipped a set of Frabill Ice Cleats over them and never slipped on the glassy conditions. For those looking for top-shelf hunting boots, try these out. Not only warm and comfy, they have Scentmask Scent containment in them too. Best boots you can buy. Period!

Tactics

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I could call this “Why we caught fish when other did not.” That was how it went. There were other guys out there, including some serious heavy hitters in the world of hard-water angling, and we were catching fish when everyone else was struggling. Foster had us running chub minnows under tip-ups on day two of the trip. We were on a hump in the lake, with gradual depth running from 7 feet, down to 14. There was obviously some structure, we were had some fish getting us tangled up in tree branches, including a 12-pound walleye that Foster had to reach down into the water and break a branch off in order to land the fish. It was wild! A key that Foster showed me, and a mistake I admittedly used to make, was letting the fish take line when on a tip-up. He waits at least five minutes and waits until the line stops moving before he even thinks of checking it.

“These fish will often grab the minnow and swim with it a ways,” Foster said. “Then they’ll stop and that’s when they will try to swallow it. That’s when you get the hookset. Far too often, guys will grab the line too soon and end up with a fish dropping the minnow.”

We did some jigging too, especially on day one, bouncing a jigging spoon and a small minnow. That found the perch and walleyes. The key here is to know when you’ve got a strike, so a sensitive rod and line combo is key. I usually use a Frabill Bro rod/reel combo, spooled with PowerPro braided line. This set up results in more hookups because you can feel the lightest of strikes. Fish have been chased all winter, and by spring, the oxygen levels are running lower in the water, but they are also gearing up for spring spawning runs. It’s a great time to catch big fish, but you have to have the patience and the right gear.

Images courtesy Derrek Sigler

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