CENTER - The fish are there. Sometimes the fishermen are too, eager to hook into a feisty largemouth bass in open water. Largemouth flourish in Nelson Lake, North Dakota's only body of water that refuses to freeze during even the coldest days of winter.
A Minnkota Power Cooperative coal-fired generating plant uses water from Nelson Lake to cool its generators. The warm water is discharged back into the lake, preventing it from freezing. Wintertime water temperature in Nelson Lake often exceeds 50 degrees, especially in the area where the warm water re-enters the lake. The lake is located southeast of Center.
Warm water suits largemouth bass just fine. The chance to fish open water for the most publicized game fish in the U.S., when other lakes are coldly entombed in thick ice, is a blessing for avid fishermen.
A fisherman prepares to cast into Nelson Lake in the hope of fooling a largemouth bass. Warm effluent from the distant power plant enters the lake from the channel at right of this photograph.
"This is absolutely unbelievable. It's like Florida in March," said Tim Berg, Prior Lake, Minn., during a recent fishing outing at Nelson Lake.
Berg is a bass fishing enthusiast who has a cabin near Grand Rapids, Minn., smack dab in the middle of countless lakes teeming with largemouth and smallmouth bass. But, with his favorite bass lakes frozen solid, the tournament fisherman could wait no longer for open water. He purchased a three-day fishing license and headed for North Dakota.
"I heard about this spot for about five years. I'm a pretty die-hard bass fisherman and was getting tired of the long winter," explained Berg, who had excused himself from some work in the region early one afternoon to find his way to Nelson Lake. "I'll head back late tonight. I'll go back and tell my dad and brother that I caught some bass in March. It's been a good day. It's unbelievable!"
Berg caught a number of largemouth bass at Nelson Lake, several of them in the 3- to 5-pound range. Presentations included baits targeting all levels of the water column, including topwater. All proved to be effective.
That's the way it can be at Nelson Lake. While the lake remains a regional favorite of avid bass anglers who relish the opportunity to put their bass catching knowledge to work, there are times when just about any presentation will catch fish.
Jason Lee, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist, surveys the fish population in Nelson Lake every year. In addition to largemouth bass, test nets turn up bluegill, crappie and northern pike.
"There's a wide range of people that like to try largemouth bass fishing. It is something different," said Lee. "You can catch really large largemouth down there, and the bluegill and crappie fishery has improved in the last few years."
According to Lee, the size of the bluegill in Nelson Lake has been on the increase. So too has the crappie, although the crappie population is less than the bluegills. Both bluegill and crappie are an important component to the fishery. Their young are a favorite forage for largemouth bass.
"As long as that forage is there, the largemouth should be fine," said Lee. "We look at the condition of fish, relative weights and measure a whole bunch of them. It gives us a pretty good indicator of the predator/prey balance."
Northern pike are found in Nelson Lake too, but the warm habitat is not to their liking. Pike are a cool water fish.
"They don't like real warm temperatures. Warm limits expansion of the pike population," said Lee.
Portions of Nelson Lake reach 90 to 100 degrees during the summer. At those times the pike in Nelson will seek out whatever cool water they can find, perhaps in the 30-foot deep water at the lower end of the lake.
While the bluegill and crappie, and to some extent northern pike, are targeted by fishermen at Nelson Lake, it is the largemouth bass that create the most excitement for anglers.
Riverdale fisherman Jason Lawrence is among those who enjoy the challenge of hooking into a big largemouth. During a recent trip to Nelson Lake, he hooked into several nice bass.
"I had a little over a 'fiver' (5-pound) right there," said an excited Lawrence shortly after releasing a largemouth back into the water. "That was nice. Open water is nice. Up by Riverdale, the ice is 4 feet thick yet."
Not far away, Eric Vossler of Bismarck was trying a variety of presentations in the hopes of hooking into a new state record largemouth. The current record, 8 pounds, 8 ounces, was pulled from Nelson Lake in 1983.
"This is pretty unique for North Dakota," remarked Vossler. "Shore fishing here is just a great time, especially when the bass get stacked up. The fish relate to what the plant releases."
Vossler was engaged in plenty of releases of his own with a number of bass, some quite large, succumbing to his efforts.
"I was walleye fishing last week and there was more than 3 feet of ice on Audubon," said Vossler shortly after releasing a nice largemouth. "It's a whole different story out here."
It is a story much welcomed by dedicated bass fishermen and by those anglers struggling to cope with a very lengthy winter. Then again, the sensation of the pull on the line and the tremble in the fishing rod may only increase the anxiousness for fishermen counting the hours until they can back their boats onto the lake of their choice.