UPPER SOURIS NWR - The number of ice houses on Lake Darling this winter has risen to an estimated 250, transforming the lake into one of the largest communities in the region. The number of permanent-style ice houses is joined by 50 to 100 or more portable ice shelters on many weekends. When that occurs, it balloons the number of ice fishing dwellings on the reservoir to the highest total in recent memory.
"We've had years with 50 or so houses on the lake," said Duane Anderson, Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge. "There's little villages out their now, probably 130 on the south end and probably equally as many in the Grano and Greene area. If the fishing picks up we could get a couple hundred more out here easily."
The reason for the high increase in on ice activity can be, in part, attributed to good access and good fishing. No matter the reasons, the sheer number of ice houses on Lake Darling easily exceeds the size of many communities in the region. The structures range from two person shanties to today's lengthy commercial models that are roomy enough for up to eight fishermen to spend the day in comfort.
Ice houses create a village in this view of the lower end of Lake Darling where ice fishing is more popular than ever.
With 250 hard-sided ice houses on the lake augmented by a hundred or more portables the population on the ice at any given time could easily exceed 700 people. According to the 2010 census, that's more people than the combined populations of Ruso, Grano, Antler, Balfour, Bantry, Butte, Donnybrook, Douglas, Kief, Kramer, Ryder, Souris, Tolley, Voltaire, Wolford and Karlsruhe.
According to the same census, for comparison purposes, Glenburn had a population of 308, Mohall 783 and Dunseith 773.
Perch fishing was quite good on Lake Darling, particularly on the lower end of the lake, for several weeks. According to some reports, perch activity lately has begun to slow down. Some fishermen have been moving their ice houses to new locations in search of better fishing. Ice thickness, which can always vary and should be subject to frequent testing, is generally reported to be about 24 inches. Snow cover on the lake has not been significant enough to cause serious travel problems.
"There's not a lot of snow, not as much as we've seen in other years, but there are some banks with crust on them," said Anderson.
Lake Audubon has long been another of the most often visited lakes by the state's ice fishermen. The number of ice houses reported there is considered to be about average so far this winter.
"At the end of December we had 90 houses on the refuge with a concentration at the mouth of Nelson Bay. There are good numbers north of the headquarters too," said Jackie Jacobson, Audubon NWR. "I would say it is an average year. What we are seeing more of is people who pull their fish houses out and don't even remove them from their pickup. When they are done fishing they just take them home again."
One reason some people don't leave their ice houses on the ice is that they don't wish to take any chances that a heavy snowfall could limit access upon their return. Another reason to remove ice houses from a lake daily is as a precaution against "ice thieves," culprits who break into unoccupied ice houses.
At Lake Audubon the public access points remain open but portions of the Auto Tour Route are blocked by drifting snow, causing some ice fishermen to change their route slightly in order to access the ice. The fishing report from Lake Audubon varies depending upon who you talk to and when, but a typical response recently has been that walleyes "mostly 12 to 15 inches" are biting from late afternoon to early evening.
A colony of ice houses has sprung up near the Totten Trail access at Lake Audubon, an area outside of refuge boundaries and not included in the refuge count of ice houses.
Ice thickness on Audubon is reported to be about 24 inches. However, precaution is urged when venturing onto Lake Audubon, a body of water notorious for varying thickness of ice due to sunken islands and active springs. Sometimes thin or weak ice can be found just a few feet from where the ice is thick and solid.