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Fishing Questions, Angling Answers

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Greg Power

Recently, Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief, responded to a series of questions posed by Dakota Country magazine in regards to fishing in North Dakota. The questions and answers are certainly relevant to North Dakota anglers and North Dakota OUTDOORS readers, providing some perspective on the open water season and beyond.

Q:  Any regulations changes for 2013 and beyond?

A:  This is the off year of our two-year proclamation period and thus there are no changes. Other than buying a new fishing license for the new season beginning April 1, all rules and regulations are the same as in the past.

Between now and October, however, our field staff will review data from their respective water bodies across the state and determine if there’s an obvious need for some type of regulation change. Collectively, we’ll discuss any lake specific proclamation issues and decide if a regulatory change is needed.
We’re riding a real high right now in terms of fishing in North Dakota and there aren’t any identified regulation changes in the hopper, with the exception of paddlefish. However, water conditions can change rapidly in North Dakota and we will make any final recommendations in fall.

Q:  North Dakota’s paddlefish snagging season, which opens May 1, remains popular. What is the status of the paddlefish population?

A:  For the past couple of decades the Sakakawea-Yellowstone population of paddlefish has generally held its own. In recent years, however, it has become evident there will be fewer fish in years to come due to poor recruitment. Understanding this, the Department is seriously considering implementing a lottery system for obtaining a paddlefish tag in 2014.

Not only are paddlefish numbers projected to decline, interest/effort/participation in paddlefish snagging is slowly increasing. Existing public access sites and areas are becoming far more crowded. Congestion and reduced quality of the experience are growing concerns. In the past, the Department has limited effort and harvest with an in-season closure option when the harvest approached 1,000 paddlefish.

However, given current conditions and expectations that the harvest cap will likely be reduced, the Department’s current regulation options are increasingly limited. A lottery system is the best remaining regulatory alternative to continue the fishery, while maintaining control of harvest at a sustainable level.

Q:  What is the outlook for the Missouri River System this year?

A:  Dave Fryda, North Dakota Game and Fish Department Missouri River System supervisor, indicates the outlook will again be a mixed bag. Lake Oahe and the Garrison Reach will continue to have challenges while the Lake Sakakawea fishery should remain good for the coming year.

Just five short years ago North Dakota OUTDOORS published “A Tale of Two Reservoirs,” contrasting the booming Lake Oahe fishery with the struggling Lake Sakakawea fishery. Today, those roles are again reversed. The one constant when it comes to the MRS fisheries in North Dakota is that change is inevitable and often rapid.

Most critical for both these fisheries is prudent water management in 2013 and beyond. Just 18 months ago the system was taxed with record releases and high reservoir levels. However, as Dave pointed out, 2012 proved once again that the Missouri River basin is a basin of drought far more frequently than floods. During the past year, drought intensified throughout the basin and large amounts of water were flushed downstream to support a miniscule navigation industry. Consequently, the reservoirs look far different than they did just a year ago and forecasts aren’t that encouraging.

Maintaining a rising water level during the spawning season (generally mid-April to mid-May) is critical for adequate forage and game fish production in both fisheries. Unfortunately, in years with minimal plains snowpack, that proves challenging and often one or both reservoirs drop during this critical period. Given the more immediate need for forage production in Lake Oahe, it has priority for a rising pool this spring if adequate runoff does not occur. If drought conditions persist, 2013 will see reservoirs decline to levels that hamper the recovery of the Lake Oahe fishery and begin to impact the Lake Sakakawea fishery. Further water level declines will also begin to negatively impact angler access as some locations on both reservoirs again become unusable.   

Q:  Are there plans to stock cisco or gizzard shad in Lake Oahe this year?

A:  There is no doubt that the current walleye fishery between Garrison Dam and the state border is much different than what anglers experienced in recent years. Lack of forage following the 2011 flood led to decreases in walleye condition and growth rates, as well as a corresponding increase in mortality rate. According to Paul Bailey, Department district fisheries supervisor, most of the walleye from the exceptionally strong 2009 year-class have now reached 13-15 inches in length and will dominate angler catches in the upcoming year.

Over the past 40-plus years, this fishery has demonstrated a remarkable ability to recover if water level management and springtime weather conditions are favorable for forage fish reproduction. However, recovery will be delayed if the dry conditions of 2012 were just the start of a longer-term drought.

Hatchery

Most of North Dakota’s "new" perch lakes were started by fisheries biologists netting adult perch and transporting them to other waters.

 

Last year, the Department worked with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks to stock adult gizzard shad in Lake Oahe in an effort to provide additional forage for predatory fish. Paul indicated that it appears that this shad reintroduction was a moderate success. However, it will likely take several consecutive mild winters for shad numbers to increase to the levels seen in the mid-2000s. It is likely that we will stock additional adult gizzard shad again this year.

Cisco are a coldwater forage species and thus we have never stocked nor intend to stock them into our portion of Lake Oahe. They already exist and reproduce in the colder waters of lower Oahe in South Dakota.

Q:  Lake Sakakawea made a nice comeback last year. Can you provide updates on: 1) stocking plans for 2013; 2) the status of salmon; 3) how smallmouth bass increased so dramatically last year; 4) are you worried about oil development eventually impacting Lake Sakakawea?

1. Again, according to Dave Fryda, the Lake Sakakawea fishery was generally very good in 2012 and should remain so in 2013. Smelt and other forage species remain adequate despite high entrainment rates experienced during the flood event of 2011. Declining habitat conditions due to dropping water levels may begin to impact the fishery as this year progresses. 

Currently, the proportion of the walleye population exceeding 20 inches is the third highest since surveys began in 1968. Additionally, anglers will see lots of 14- to 16-inch fish recruited to the fishery in 2013 due to a strong 2010 year-class that has grown exceptionally well.
Northern pike abundance is off the charts at levels double the previous record. Good opportunities for pike exist throughout the reservoir, but most pike are still less than 10 pounds. As the strong 2009 year-class continues to grow, Lake Sakakawea will again be a prime location for trophy pike.
Currently, stocking plans for Lake Sakakawea include 2 million walleye and 200,000 chinook salmon.

2. Predicting how the salmon run and angling success will be is one of the more difficult tasks we encounter. We don’t have a lot of ability to monitor salmon abundance and size from the time they are stocked until they return in the fall run as adults. A couple indicators of the salmon run potential are smelt abundance and the number of young maturing male salmon (jacks) seen in the previous year’s spawning run. Smelt abundance declined following the flood of 2011, but remains adequate. Jack salmon abundance in 2012 wasn’t overly impressive, suggesting perhaps a smaller run in 2013. 

3. Like virtually all species, smallmouth bass suffered greatly during the last drought. However, they had an advantage in recovering quickly due to their later spawning times. In 2008, water levels began to rebound in midsummer from a prolonged drought. We noted a strong year-class of smallies in our fall reproduction surveys and have noted other strong year-classes in subsequent surveys. The population currently has lots of nice-sized bass, with a high abundance of larger fish as reflected in the record number (53) of “Whopper” smallmouth reported in 2012. This fishery should remain strong in 2013.

4. Regarding energy development, the large number of wells and pipelines close to the reservoir and within the flood plain certainly has a risk associated with them that will only increase as the industry further develops. Fortunately, we haven’t documented any biological impacts to date. On the other hand, many popular recreational areas along Lake Sakakawea are in the heart of the oil development region. We routinely hear from anglers who are avoiding certain, once-popular access sites due to not wanting to risk damage to boats and other equipment on rough roads.         

Q: Did the small- and medium-sized lakes lose enough water because of dry conditions last summer to raise concerns? Are you worried about another impending drought?

A:  Yes, there was/is a concern, but then again every fisheries biologist in the Dakotas, from day one on the job until retirement, is aware of weather patterns and is concerned about drought.
A very dry winter and summer this past year resulted in a 2- to 4-foot reduction in lake levels pretty much throughout all of North Dakota. Normally, this rate of loss would be absolutely alarming. But with record floods in 2011 and many lakes at record-high lake levels, if there ever was a time we could afford to lose that much water, it was last year. One thing for certain, we won’t be able to absorb another 2- to 4-foot loss in water levels again in 2013 without the risk of summer and winterkills increasing dramatically.  

Q: We heard of fishing waters in winter that we’ve never heard of before with healthy populations of yellow perch. Does Game and Fish know how many of these such lakes are actually out there?

A:  An exact number, no. Although, most of these “new” perch lakes were started by the efforts of our field biologists, some did not. When a lake can start producing good numbers of 10-inch and larger perch, the word spreads quickly. That certainly was the case again this past winter.

I should note that in 2012 we hit the 400-lake mark that we’re actively managing. Just 20 years ago we had fewer than 180, so we now have a record number of lakes. And in many cases, these waters are supporting a record number of fish, not just perch, but pike, walleye, bass and so on. Like I’ve said for the past couple years, the good old days for fishing are now.

Q: What are Game and Fish’s plans for perch stocking?

A:  With dry conditions over the past year-plus, the number of new lakes that can overwinter perch is greatly reduced. Also, we need to obtain landowner access easements on many of these lakes before we stock them. However, I’m sure there will be some new lakes fisheries biologists have in mind that will be stocked this spring with spawning perch. 

Q: What’s the Game and Fish Department’s criteria for a healthy perch-stocking lake?

A:  First, it has to be of some size. And more importantly, the maximum depth has to be 12 feet, although 15 feet or more is much better. Then, if it’s without pike or other predators, the better chance it has to become established as a perch fishery. Lastly, we need to ensure there is public access. 

Hatchery

Talk on the federal level about hatchery funding hasn’t been encouraging, state fisheries officials say.

 
Q:  Do fisheries biologists get a chance to test-net all these perch lakes each year?

A:  Not even close. There are just too many lakes to get to them all. But usually within two years after the initial stocking, we’re able to get in and do a quick assessment.   

Q:  Largemouth bass and trout typically are at the bottom of the popularity list in North Dakota. Has that changed at all? Is the trout stocking program in limited lakes still ongoing?

A:  I don’t think their popularity has changed much, but we’re conducting a mail survey right now and that is one of the questions. I don’t think it’s a dislike for trout or bass, but rather that North Dakotans are crazy for walleye year-round, plus pike and perch in the winter. We still have lakes that are more suitable for trout and/or bass and we’ll continue to manage them for these species, and encourage families and youth to get after them as they can be relatively easy to catch and provide great entertainment. We continue to stock as many trout as we did 10 years ago. 

Q:  Any concerns with hatchery funding this year?

A:  This has become an ongoing concern and, unfortunately, talk at the national level hasn’t been overly encouraging. Again on a local level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatchery employees do a great job trying to keep the “recreational fish” stocking portion of their mandates solvent. But recreational fish stocking continues to be de-emphasized within the USFWS so the state will likely be asked to do more, and we will. 

Q:  Devils Lake is on a roll. What is the status this year?

A:  The lake level has not stabilized. The combination of limited inflows last spring, a dry summer, and the operation of the emergency outlets, contributed to a decrease in lake level of about 3 feet in 2012.

Even if the outlets didn’t exist, Devils Lake would naturally experience water level changes. The lake level just does not remain steady for very long. A fluctuating water level is actually beneficial for fish reproduction and survival.

At high lake levels this past decade-plus, walleye and northern pike have generally reached higher population levels relative to perch and white bass than when the lake was at lower levels.

According to Todd Caspers, Department fisheries biologist in Devils Lake, surveys continue to show that walleye and northern pike are very abundant, with about 75 percent of the adult walleye between 10-15 inches long, and about 20 percent are between 15-20 inches long. About one in 20 walleye are 20 inches or longer. The current walleye size structure is on the small side, but should improve in the next few years as the abundant younger fish age and grow.

Walleye
 

Northern pike are running larger, with about 75 percent between 21-28 inches and about 15 percent are between 28-34 inches.

South Dakota State University is just completing a bioenergetics study on Devils Lake. Randy Hiltner, Department fisheries supervisor in Devils Lake, has helped guide this study to determine not only food habits, but also growth and mortality rates. Nothing too earth shattering in terms of what the predator fish eat. Scuds (freshwater shrimp), various other aquatic insects, leeches and small fish, such as fathead minnows, are common table fare. One finding of interest from the study showed that adult white bass do not eat many small yellow perch.

Regarding walleye reproduction, it has been good for some time. High lake levels provide good spawning habitat as “new” shoreline is scoured by wave action and exposes clean rock and gravel. 

Q:  Any thoughts on where the next, if any, state record walleye might come from?

A:  Obviously the big three – Sakakawea, Oahe/Missouri River and Devils Lake – come quickly to mind. Devils Lake put out some very large walleye last year, some of the largest ever out of that lake. However, sleepers for a possible state record include many of our midsize reservoirs such as Darling, Audubon, Heart Butte and Ashtabula. And believe it or not, the Red River has the ability to produce large walleye. 

Q:  You work with fish all the time. What is your personal favorite type of fishing?

A:  Perch in the winter and walleye during the open-water season leads my list, but with a caveat. The only fishing I will do is where the crowds are not, so I pass up some hot bites. There’s nothing better than casting cranks from shore at night or working the electric motor on the Missouri pursuing walleye in peace and quiet. It’s not just about catching fish, but all the neat things you see or hear while fishing in the back 40. You may have to get up early or stay out late, but thankfully North Dakota still offers quality fishing without the crowds. 

Q:  Any creel surveys coming up this year?

A:  If all goes according to plan, there will be a creel survey on Devils Lake this summer and again next winter. 

Q: Game and Fish conducts population surveys on most of the perch lakes each year. Is there a place where anglers can find out the results of those tests to eliminate wasted time and zero in on big perch lakes and avoid lakes with stunted perch?

A:  Though this may be a simple question, trying to answer it is anything but. However, the Department has not been, nor plans to be a repository of “where are the fish biting.” We continue to direct the public to the local bait shops, as they often have the latest first-hand fishing reports. In terms of available information, we do currently provide, and periodically update, directions to a given lake, what species are common, and if available, a contour map. This information is included in the North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine and online at http://gf.nd.gov/fishing/fishing-waters.
However, we haven’t provided catch record information. This matter has been both a practical and philosophical debate for years with pros and cons on both sides. The reality is that of the current 400 water bodies in the state that we’re actively managing, we are only able to get to slightly more than half of them during the course of the year to assess the adult fish population. And for the water bodies we do get to, the catches can vary based on a number of factors and so interpretation of catch records often require a broader working knowledge.
For example, a high catch rate from a given lake does not necessarily translate into angler success. Saying all that, we are providing additional information about our lakes in this magazine. (See Page 6). This is not catch record data, but summaries from the respective fisheries supervisors for anglers to use and frame realistic expectations. This information will be updated periodically online at http://gf.nd.gov/fishing/fishing-waters.