GARRISON There is a wide variety of factors to be considered when determining the overall health of a fishery. One of the best indicators that a fishery is doing well is if it is producing young fish. An abundance of young-of-the-year fish creates the potential for good fishing as those fish grow. It also indicates the adult fish are doing pretty well too.
Finding young-of-the-year fish is an annual project for fish biologists with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Game and Fish biologists are in the midst of wrapping up fall netting surveys on sprawling Lake Sakakawea. With water in the reservoir somewhat higher than normal, the results from the nets thus far has been encouraging.
"We're finding a fair number of young-of-the-year walleyes, so it appears they had a good year," said Russ Kinzler, N.D. Game and Fish Department, during a break in pulling capture nets from Doug-las Bay this past Wednesday. "We'll send in some to check and see if they are hatchery produced or natural reproduction."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Young-of-the-year fish count fall survey nets are recorded for later entry into the Game and Fish Department’s database. This year’s results will be compared to long-term averages.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - It is hoped these young-of-the-year walleye indicate a flourishing walleye population in Lake Sakakawea. Laboratory testing is required to determine if these fish produced naturally or were part of this year’s stocking effort.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Fish biologists retrieve a frame net from the upper reaches of Douglas Bay this past Wednesday as part of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s annual survey of young-of-the-year fish.
About 2 million young walleyes were stocked into the lower third Lake Sakakawea earlier this year, part of a near-record stocking effort conducted throughout the reservoir. The stocked fish were marked with a chemical that can be traced through the otolith in a fish's inner ear. Examination will reveal whether or not a young Lake Sakakawea walleye was stocked or was produced naturally in the reservoir.
A year ago, biologists were expecting fall netting to reveal a strong year class of young walleyes, but results from the nets proved disappointing. However, there have been some surprises in the nets recently that contradicts information obtained in 2010. It is excellent news for walleye enthusiasts.
"Last year was a good year but it didn't look as good as we thought it would be," Kinzler said. "When we did our adult population netting this year the yearling walleyes were there. We just missed them, somehow, last fall. Now it looks like a lot stronger year class this fall than we saw last year."
In summary, it appears that Lake Sakakawea walleyes have experienced back-to-back years with a combination of strong natural reproduction and increased stocking. In addition, the walleyes being caught this year are showing good growth and are in excellent health.
"The main fish we're looking at this year is the walleye," Kinzler said. "From what we've done so far, I would say, it's a pretty good year."
'Pretty good year'
Kinzler estimated that fall netting had been completed on three-quarters of Lake Sakakawea by this past Wednesday.
High winds prevented biologists from pulling nets one day last week, but with cooperative weather, it is estimated the work could finish up by the end of this week. Young-of-the-year netting began on the west end of the reservoir and has been progressing toward the east end. Biologists were pulling nets from Douglas Bay Wednesday.
"White bass seem to have had a pretty good year and there's a fair number of crappie out here," Kinzler said. "We've been catching quite a few perch in the nets too, mostly of last year's spawn. They are yearlings and, actually, a real good number of those."
One frame net pulled from the shallows in the upper reaches of Douglas Bay contained over 30,000 young bullheads. Bullheads are seldom found in Lake Sakakawea, particularly in such high numbers.
"This is only the second time in 20 years out here that I've seen a frame net full of bullheads," Kinzler said. "We rarely catch them. One or two a year is about it."
While bullheads are certainly not a preference for most North Dakota fishermen, the good news is that young-of-the-year numbers for multiple species appears to be high once again. White bass, crappies, perch, bullheads all suitable forage for fish trying to grow bigger, including northern pike.
Pike have had some terrific hatches in recent years as Lake Sakakawea rebounded from low water levels. Newly flooded vegetation proved to be exactly what the pike needed for near record reproduction.
"It was a few years ago that the young pike were all over and you see the results now with a lot of adult pike in the lake," Kinzler said. "It's probably close to a record number this year."
Although reports of catches of trophy pike from Lake Sakakawea have dwindled considerably in recent years, history shows the huge reservoir can support superb northern pike and walleye fishing. The number of 20-pound pike in Lake Sakakawea is believed to be limited today but, with so many pike flourishing in the reservoir and an apparent abundance of forage, the pike have been rebounding quickly both in numbers and size. Catches of three- to eight-pound pike on Lake Sakakawea is common today, and should only get better in the years ahead.