DOUG LEIER ND Game and Fish Department
I vaguely compared some of the work of our fisheries division to agriculture. Planting, storing and raising fish parallels farmers planting crops.
You need the right soil, the right conditions and the right weather to grow the crop. Wheat or golden. It’s not too far when you think about it.
So this spring, as farmers battled snow, ice and cold, the same conditions that gave farmers seizures were frustrating for biologists and fisheries managers.
Just having land does not equate to a bumper crop of wheat, and the right water is needed to grow fish for storage. When fisheries biologists are asked to “restock this lake”, it starts a process.
The first step in establishing a new lake is to ensure that the public has access to it. Second, a small body of water may harbor sunfish and not a predator like northern pike. Or, if the water has no fish, they may stock yellow perch, which can thrive on aquatic insects and amphipods when there are no other fish to compete with. For most anglers, northern pike and perch take a back seat to walleye.
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Due to the desire and interest of anglers to fish this summer, and more in the future, it is important to consider how the weather this spring has created a unique challenge for fisheries managers. and biologists.
Game and Fish Department Production/Development Section Supervisor Jerry Weigel said he collects eggs and milt from walleye from Sakakawea and Devils Lake, raises the eggs to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery and later released millions of fry into the dozens of walleye lakes on the prairies and elsewhere. is essential to maintaining these fisheries to meet the expectations of fishermen.
Weigel said the walleye egg target for 2022 is around 58 million eggs and more than 70 million eggs have been harvested. As usual, Walleye from Lake Sakakawea provided the majority of eggs in the spring.
“For much of the last decade, the vast majority of our walleye eggs came from Sakakawea,” said Missouri River System department supervisor Dave Fryda. “Overall, the Lake Sakakawea fishery continues to be in good condition. We are able to pick up a large number of quality eggs for use throughout North Dakota. »
However, lower water levels at Sakakawea could change things later.
“Although the walleye population is still doing very well in Sakakawea, we have some concerns in the coming years as we are at the lowest level in over a decade,” Fryda said. “And where we’re going in the next year or two is probably kind of a turning point. We’re still in good shape, but if the water levels continue to drop, we could see a trade-off in the fishery.
In terms of storing new water, biologists typically assess the size of the lake and measure the depth and oxygen levels to see if it can support fish through the winter. In some cases, they may set nets to determine what type of fish, if any, are already present.
Then, like that farmer planning what crops to plant, they use the information gathered to select the fish best suited to the lake. While anglers may want walleye or perch, limiting factors on the body of water may instead bode well for some other species.
If, for example, the water is already full of fathead minnows, walleye may be the best option for producing a quality catch in a short time because it grows well in this type of environment.
After the fish are selected and stocked, the lake is left alone for a period of time to allow the fish to grow to a workable size. Periodic test nets are performed to assess survival, growth, and eventual reproduction.
When the fish become plentiful and large enough for anglers to catch, the lake is added to the list of fishing waters for anglers to see.
Doug Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.