A wintertime oasis

CENTER – It is easy to forget what month it is when fishing there. Then again, it is precisely the reason many fishermen visit Nelson Lake during the winter.

Open water can be found on Nelson Lake throughout the winter. Warm water released from a power plant at the lake heats much of the body of water to temperatures far above freezing. Often steam can be seen rising from the lake during cold winter days. It is the result of heated water from the power plant mixing with the colder air above. To an open water fisherman, even someone just wanting to get away from the ice auger and miniature fishing rods, Nelson Lake is an ideal destination.

Pull a fish from Nelson Lake during the winter and there is no need to wear gloves. The water is much warmer than the air, often exceeding 50 degrees. The fish are warm too, which makes them easy to handle. Bluegill, crappie and largemouth bass do very well in Nelson Lake.

Although the bluegill and crappie are found in abundance, it is the largemouth bass fishing at Nelson Lake that attracts a major share of the attention. The lake is touted to be the best largemouth bass fishery in North Dakota. Two bass fishing organizations, the Badlands Bass Bandits and American Bass Anglers, recognize that belief. The two groups will spend six days hosting bass fishing tournaments on Nelson Lake this year.

It’s true that largemouth bass fisheries are rare in North Dakota, but Nelson Lake is a boon for largemouth fishermen by any standards. The state record largemouth, 8 1/2 pounds, came from Nelson Lake. Many bass fishermen believe Nelson will produce another state record in the near future. The potential is there. Numerous catches of largemouths weighing 5 pounds or better are reported each year at Nelson Lake. While bass that big may remain somewhat of a rarity, 2- and 3-pound largemouths are not uncommon there.

On March 2, several fishermen could be seen lining a portion of the shoreline. Many were wearing light jackets or simply long-sleeve shirts. The air temperature was reaching into the mid-40s and the water temperature was higher. It made for very pleasant angling.

Dean Jost of Bismarck was among the fishermen enjoying a near-perfect day outdoors during winter in North Dakota.

“I’m just trying to have some fun. It’s a beautiful day to get out, get some fish and get the friends’ kids out fishing because he can’t catch any,” laughed Jost.

Jost had several nice crappie and bluegill in a bucket of water. He was fishing with a bobber, jig and small Gulp minnow a few feet away from the shore. Live bait is not allowed at Nelson Lake. Jost watched as the narrow bobber he had just tossed out began to dip up and down. He set the hook on a keeper bluegill.

“It’s fun. It’s fun,” said Jost with a big smile. “There’s some real nice bluegill, crappie and the best bass fishing in the state. It’s always like summer here. This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve been here this winter.”

Not far away from Jost was Jay Griffin. Griffin was fishing off a pier, enjoying watching his two children catch fish and as well as catching a few of his own.

“It was a way to get out of the house so we don’t have to clean it,” joked Griffin. “We’ve been here a lot. It’s nice to get out in the winter and regular-fish rather than ice-fish. Usually the water warms up the air a little bit.”

Despite the gentle ribbing from Jost, Griffin had caught several bluegill and crappie which would make a fine meal later that day. Mixed in was the occasional largemouth bass. Most of the bass were small on this day, less than 2 pounds. All the bass were released back into the water, a practice that is encouraged at Nelson Lake.

“It’s a lot of fun catching fish and watching the kids catch fish,” said Griffin. “A lot of fun.”

Other fishermen were catching fish, too. Some were targeting only bass, using anything from crankbaits and stickbaits to jigs and creatures. Several bass were caught during a brief period. Some of them were large enough to grab the attention of other anglers along the bank who passed along their compliments.

Out on the water boat fishermen were trying their luck as well. It was easy to spot the largemouth bass anglers standing tall and casting away, their silhouettes conspicuously outlined atop the misty water. Sometimes the silhouettes would move to the same section of the boat, an indicator that a largemouth was seen or hooked.

And so it goes on Nelson Lake during a North Dakota winter. The open water remains an oasis that is often surrounded by a landscape encased in snow. It makes for an odd site, but those who frequent the lake are grateful for the relief it offers from the normal harshness of a North Dakota winter, particularly when the fish are willing to cooperate.