PARSHALL - It is hard to imagine it could get much better, but it probably will. Lake Sakakawea's walleyes are indeed looking good. They are fat, lengthy, numerous, healthy and still growing - a dramatic change from just a few short years ago.
"It is night and day difference over the last couple of years. The numbers are good and the size and condition of the fish is quite a rebound," said Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief.
Power, a former field biologist, accompanied a NDG&F fisheries crew from Riverdale during spawning operations conducted at Parshall Bay this past Wednesday. He was pleased to see that an abundance of hefty walleyes were captured, both because of the overall size of the fish and for the thousands of eggs they carried.
"There's lots of nice fish, 23- to 25-inch stuff, good egg quantity and a lot of nice fish," said Dave Fryda, NDG&F North-Central Fisheries District supervisor, Riverdale. "Right now everything looks good. We're not seeing any signs of stress."
A few years ago netting at the same location provided a much different result. Walleyes were skinny, undersized and the egg quality was poor. The reason why was low water in Lake Sakakawea that decimated the reservoir's smelt population. When cold-water dwelling smelt are plentiful, Lake Sakakawea walleyes feast on them. Without good smelt numbers Lake Sakakawea walleyes struggle to survive and the difference in age classes is sometimes to minimal to detect.
"A smelt forage rebound has occurred here on Sakakawea. Maybe we're not all the way there yet, but we're a lot closer," noted Power.
"We've seen dramatic increases in growth rates," said Fryda. "Obviously, when our forage came back the fish growth rate really accelerated. Today's fish are two years ahead of where they were before. Our 2009 fish were pushing 14 inches at age two. Right now things are really good."
Biologists hope to deliver enough walleye eggs to the state's two hatcheries, Garrison Dam and Valley City, to produce more than 4 million young walleyes. The production rate for hatchery-reared eggs is much higher than what would normally occur in the wild. That means a greater number of walleyes should be produced for stocking back into Lake Sakakawea and other lakes in the state later this year.
"We have a lot of new lakes, at last count 365, which is double where we were 20 years ago," said Power. "In central and eastern North Dakota we have 100-acre wetlands that are now 1,000-acre walleye lakes with 20 feet max. Our guys have been pretty aggressive in introducing walleye where there weren't any and they are doing well."
Fish biologists get to see firsthand what fishermen may only get a glimpse of on their sonar units - what lies beneath the surface of the water. Enough walleyes are netted each spring on Lake Sakakawea to compile a very good picture of the lake's fish population. This year's take will go down as one of the most encouraging on record.
While Sakakawea walleyes are freight-training towards whopper status, northern pike have exploded too. The daily limit has been increased from three to five statewide.
"On Sakakawea, the entire river system, we've never seen more pike in the system than we have right now. Our catch rates last summer were the highest we've seen since we started netting 40 years ago," remarked Fryda while standing near the dock at Parshall Bay. "There's a lot of young pike coming on. In this portion of the reservoir we're seeing some real large pike too."
Lake Sakakawea's walleyes are doing remarkably well. Pike production has been phenomenal. Smallmouth bass are thriving in many state waters. One national publication recently listed Lake Audubon among the Top 100 bass waters in the United States. All things considered, it could be a very memorable year for fishing in North Dakota.
"Statewide it's never been better," stated Power, "And not just for one species. There's plenty of options out there. It is a period right now where we have plenty of fish."
A look ahead
As good as conditions are right now, biologists know they can change in a matter of months. That's the way it is on the plains where high water years and drought years sometimes occur close together. Last year Lake Sakakawea set an all-time mark for high water. This year is developing much differently, perhaps too much so. Sakakawea dropped below 1,836 feet this past week, considered somewhat normal for the long-term, but almost 20 feet lower than a year ago and with little promise of increase yet to come from melting Montana snow.
"It beats the flood of last year and certainly beats the drought years. The big question now is, where are we going?" said Power. "It's North Dakota. Floods and drought, floods and drought. It's drying up maybe a little too fast."
Lake levels have not been living up to monthly projections and, without a significant weather pattern to trigger a reversal, it is a trend that may continue. Dropping water has already had an adverse effect on this year's smelt spawn. Smelt spawn in very shallow water. If the water level drops while smelt eggs lie attached to cobble, and the cobble becomes exposed, the eggs don't hatch.
"By most accounts there was a good smelt run," said Fryda. "But we do have concerns about the success of that spawning run. Water levels dropped and continued to drop about a foot during that week to 10-day window. Eggs were left high and dry here at Parshall."
The total effect of dropping water during the smelt spawn won't be fully known until hydro-acoustic testing for smelt is conducted later this year. Those tests should also provide some insight as to how many smelt were flushed through Garrison Dam during the high water episode of 2011.
"Right now we know the fish are doing good," said Fryda. "There's smelt, perch and spottails. We'll know more later. Things can change quickly."
Fryda expressed concern about projected water levels for Lake Sakakawea this summer, noting the possibility of going from a record high in 2011 to very low levels in 2013.
"The Missouri River system is a system with a history of droughts more than floods," said Fryda. "In one short year we could find ourselves at levels that are concerns for the fishery. We live and die by water levels and how water is managed. Things are good now, but what is on the horizon?"
This year's spawning effort is expected to result in enough eggs taken that both federal hatcheries will be operating at maximum capacity in the coming weeks. North Dakota federal hatcheries are operated in a cooperative effort with the Game and Fish Department. It is a unique arrangement that is vital to the success of state fisheries.
The state's hatcheries have been on the "cut" list of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget as recently as this year, but have thus far escaped funding cuts that would likely result in closure. NDG&F has followed the federal budget process closely, acknowledging that Game and Fish would have no choice but to acquire the hatcheries if necessary.
"We would have to," agreed Power. "First off, let's hope the federal government never backs of their commitment to the two hatcheries. It's dollars and sense, but also the obligation and commitment to North Dakota. These hatcheries are phenomenal and their production is unbelievable.
"Over the long haul we need to supplement our fisheries with stocking from the hatcheries. That's an absolute. It's a benefit for everybody out there."