Small Waters, Big Adventure

by Dave Genz with Mark Strand

The wind started from who knows where and blew crystals of snow across the prairie, and except for Dave Genz’s van and a lone crow, it might have been the aftermath of the apocalypse. Dave shut the door of the van and walked over to take a better look, his atlas in hand, and every sound he made sounded crisp and distinct, like it had been sweetened for the audio track of a movie.

To say there were no other ice fishermen out here could have been part of a David Letterman joke, but there on the Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge south of Pierre, SD, was a flat spot of white with no grass, a stock dam dug by the corps of engineers so that cattle grazing on public property can get a drink.

Genz talks a lot about checking out the best rumors.

This was proof that he actually does it.

He didn’t know whether there would be any fish in that ‘dam,’ as they call them around here, but it would be fun finding out. And, as Dave also says, it doesn’t take long to figure out if there are big fish in a small pond.

No matter where you live, there are small waters. Ponds, pits, stock dams, tiny lakes. No matter what they are called where you live, they hold potential as ice fishing waters, assuming they aren’t covered by thick ice and deep snow for months (that would, chances are, kill off most of the fish).

-One of the things that gives them such great potential is that they are overlooked by most other anglers. They aren’t glamour waters; you don’t read their names in the broad bottom margin of a Polaroid picture pinned to the bait shop wall. In truth, fishing small waters is like playing the shell game: you have to look under a few empty ones before you score.

You have to be willing to part with some of your precious free time to play the trial-and-error game. We came to this particular story, in fact, because one of our Power Sticks, Dave Bonham of Fort Pierre, SD, chose to do that when he moved from the Iowa Great Lakes region to South Dakota 27 years ago. “You know what’s there in northwest Iowa,” he said. “Spirit Lake, Okoboji. That’s where I fished, because that was the best choice. But when I moved out here, it was kind of the opposite. There aren’t many lakes around the Pierre area, although we do have the river. But there’s a ton of ponds. I just didn’t know if they had anything in them or not. I went out there and found out that there’s a jackpot in some of them.”

Finding the Good Ones

Bonham, being a relative newcomer to the area, had a huge advantage when it came to getting clues about which small waters might hold good fish: he’s a taxidermist. Through the doors of his shop come a steady stream of trophy fish, and not all of them come from the big river.

“My customers are really nice people,” Bonham says, “and a lot of them tell me where they caught their fish. Plus, we sit there and talk for a while when they stop in, and you hear things. They tell you that they used to catch big perch out of a certain dam, but they haven’t been back for a few years, stuff like that. And you just make a mental note of it, and when you get a chance, you go check it out.

“Some guys don’t care about big panfish, because they’re more into walleyes. But when I hear about somebody catching bluegills that have shoulders on ‘em like a little buffalo, that perks my ears up. I love big bluegills.”

-Small waters, like larger waters, can run the gamut in terms of the balance of their fish populations. Some are crammed with tiny, stunted panfish. Some have mostly one species of fish, such as perch or bluegills. Others have a wide variety. “I’ve caught big ‘gills, crappies, perch, bass, northerns, even some walleyes in our ponds,” says Bonham. “Really, they can have just about anything. I’ve even caught some nice catfish and bullheads.” When he starts fishing a new pond, Bonham takes it as a good sign if he gets bit off, or lands even a hammerhandle pike.

“All my good dams have northerns in them,” he says. “I think they keep the numbers of little panfish down, so the rest of them can get bigger. I can put up with getting my line bit off a few times to catch the fish I’m after.”

To pre-qualify ponds, Genz uses clues he picks up from the index of a ‘sportsman’s atlas,’ various brands of which are available in most states. “A lot of them will list public waters, even ponds,” he says, “and what species of fish are in them.”

Genz relates stories from last winter, of looking up such ponds, on public land, some within plain view of the interstate, and walking out and getting right into nice fish. Cars are zooming by, some heading for other lakes, while Dave is quietly hauling in another big bluegill.

If the word gets out that a public pond is kicking out nice fish, of course, human nature being what it is, the bulk of the adult fish can go home in buckets within a few weeks. “You can definitely wipe out the big fish in short order,” warns Genz. “A wise person would leave the bigger fish in the pond, maybe keeping a few smaller ones to eat.”

Bonham keeps a file in his mind (he never writes down any notes) of which ponds are producing what, and when he does take friends to ripe water, he lays down the rules ahead of time. “On some dams,” he says, “we just have a good time fishing, and we throw everything back. The fish are big, and they’re in perfect balance, and we want to keep it that way.”

Generally speaking, waters on private property are easier to protect. “It’s hard to keep something secret that’s public,” admits Bonham. “Usually the word gets out, and they get hit hard, and then they’re no good for a few years and everybody forgets about them.”

-Ponds have a great ability to come back, if the fish populations are not stunted. So Bonham never completely forgets about any pond that was once a good producer. After a few years go by, he quietly goes back and checks to see if the jackpot has built up again.

Self-Managing Stunted Waters

Not that he’s into playing God, and you must always remain within the legal limits, but Bonham does some fisheries management on ponds that he feels could be improved. “If you have a lot of small, stunted fish in a dam,” he says, “they might need a good cleaning out. I’ve worked with guys and taken 1,000 bluegills out of a small dam, and the remaining fish grow a quarter-pound in a year’s time.”

Locating Fish on Small Waters

Even if you had to ‘drill out’ the whole works, you could do it on some smaller ponds. But Genz and Bonham have good advice for how to quickly check most iced-over small waters.

“If I go to a dam I’ve never been to before,” says Bonham, “I get out and look it over before I start drilling holes. If it has a high bank on it, that usually means there’s some pretty deep water not too far out from shore. That is usually a good place.

“I usually start, not clear in the tail end, but maybe in the middle of the tail end, and bore a line of holes going out to the middle of the dam. Depending on the size of the dam, they might be about 30 feet apart, maybe more. If I don’t hit anything in any of those holes, then I’ll try right off the face of the dam.

“So many times, the fish are on the break between the shallow water and deep water. Right where it starts to drop deep, that’s usually a good spot out here. Really, finding the fish isn’t that hard, because most of the dams are only a few acres. If you just move around, you can find them. I won’t go out on the ice without my Vexilar. When you have a Vexilar, it’s pretty hard for the fish to escape.”

The biggest mistake a pond angler can make, says Bonham, sounding like Genz, is to sit around over a few holes “waiting for the fish to bite. Keep moving. Don’t stay in one place too long. They’re either there or they aren’t. You always gotta be on the move. I almost always use only one line. If you put out too many lines, or start setting up tip-ups, you get stranded out there watching them all. I drill lots of holes and move all the time. Even if I’m catching lots of fish, I move around to see what else is there.”

Genz has a similar formula for finding pond fish:

“When ponds are iced over,” says Genz, “I generally look for the overflow of the pond, where the culvert runs out. The theory is, that’s the deepest water in the pond, usually, where they’ve pushed out the dirt when they made the pond. I usually take 30 paces out into the pond from the overflow and start there.

“The deepest water holds so many fish because, in most of the smaller ponds, the weeds don’t live through the winter. So the fish are feeding on the zooplankton that’s in the deeper water. The fish are using water depth as their ‘cover,’ or maybe the food that they’re feeding on is using water depth as its cover.”

In the fringe regions of the ice belt, where walking ice can form for a few days, then it melts and perhaps forms again in a few weeks, oxygen levels remain high and fish can be found in shallow weeds. But where the winter is ‘longer,’ fish tend to gravitate to the deeper water right away.

“The weeds are usually down before the ice forms,” says Genz. “Out on the prairie, especially, the wind usually blows hard in the late fall, before the ice comes. That’s another thing that makes the weeds fall. The water cools, the weeds die off, and the wind blows them down flat. That forces the fish into deeper water.”

(Separate note: this principle is in force on more expansive prairie lakes, and in many other lakes across the ice belt. Healthy shallow weeds can hold fish at any point in the winter, but blown-down, brown weeds don’t typically hold many fish.)

Bottom Line

The spirit of adventure, something we’ve written about often in Ice Team publications, will serve you well, along with your Vexilar and Lazer auger. Listen carefully to the best rumors, but be willing to spend your own time checking them out. “You don’t always catch big fish,” says Bonham, “but maybe that makes the good days even better.

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2019