GRANO - The northern pike have never been more plentiful or healthier. Perch numbers are very high. Smallmouth bass and walleyes are hard to find. That was the snapshot obtained the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during test netting conducted at Lake Darling last week.
Wade King, USFWS, led a fisheries crew that spent two days pulling nets on the Renville County reservoir last Monday and Tuesday. Because of the overall number of fish captured, and their size, the workload was nearly double what was expected.
Leading the catch was northern pike - lots and lots of northern pike.
The level of Lake Darling has stabilized this year, allowing fish biologists ample opportunity to conduct test netting and permitting the fish to be stocked once again.
"Pike numbers are just incredible," said King while observing the take in an adult survey net near the Grano Crossing at the northern end of Lake Darling. "Last year after the flood, we assumed there would be a lot less numbers, but 2011 was the highest pike numbers we've ever surveyed.
Lake Darling pike are already running considerably larger than what the reservoir has produced in recent memory, and noticeably larger than the pike produced in many of the state's smaller lakes. Lake Darling pike pushing 6 to10 pounds are being caught with regularity, about twice the size of catch that is normally expected.
"You see in the nets all these dang big fish. I'll tell you what, I can't imagine the next four or five years if these pike keep growing," said King.
Lake Darling statistics
Surface area: 9,500 acres
Avg. depth: 9.7 feet
Maximum depth: 25.7 feet
Shoreline: 67.9 miles
Northern pike have not been stocked at Lake Darling since a minimal dump of 50,000 fingerlings in 2004. King has been working Lake Darling since 1994. Looking back at the history of the reservoir, he says that pike stocking has probably not been as necessary as earlier believed.
"These numbers are surprising because we haven't stocked pike for nearly a decade," remarked King. "They are doing well on their own, obviously."
Pike are known to run hard against the current in the spring, seeking suitable places in which to spawn. The northern reaches of Lake Darling has provided excellent spawning habitat in recent years.
"They are absolutely exploding in this lake. There's plenty of vegetation up on that north end for spawning and they are doing a great job," said King. "Last year we did some stomach samples and found they were predating on smaller pike. Some had seven, eight, nine fingerlings in them. They are doing well in this system."
While northern pike are doing very well in Lake Darling, walleyes are not. Fishermen have been catching some small walleyes and an occasional larger fish, but overall the catch is reflective of fewer numbers.
During netting this past week, very few walleyes were caught. It was a stunning reversal for biologists used to seeing nets teeming with the popular gamefish.
"In the last six or seven years, we've probably been averaging 400 to 500 walleyes in the nets annually," said King. "Last year, after the flood, walleyes in Lake Darling were down about 60 percent. The way the nets are looking right now, it appears our walleye catch isn't near what it should be now, either."
Speculation is that a great number of Lake Darling walleyes were flushed down the Souris River. That assumption is backed up by the fact that walleye fishing in the Souris River picked up considerably after the 2011 flood.
"It looks like we lost quite a few fish through the system with the high flows," said Fred Ryckman, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fish biologist. "A lot of those fish went downstream, were caught just below Lake Darling, caught in Minot, anyplace anybody could get to the river. It was not all bad."
No stocking of fish occurred in Lake Darling in 2011 due to flood conditions. However, with walleye numbers at a recent low, biologists recognized the need to replenish Lake Darling with young walleyes again this year.
"(We stocked) 449,700 walleyes, to be exact," said Jerry Weigel, NDG&F fisheries production and development section leader. "The last were put in June 13 at Grano, Greene and the West Landing. They were definitely some of the nicest fish ever shipped out of the Garrison Hatchery."
Weigel added that the young walleyes were stocked prior to a recent spell of hot weather. That makes the adjustment from hatchery rearing ponds to area lakes less stressful for young fish. The most recent stocking of walleyes in Lake Darling prior to this year was 245,900 in 2010 and 353,900 in 2009.
"We'll see what happens later this year. We'll come back in September and see how the natural reproduction is for young of the year fish. Right now the walleye numbers are definitely down."
As recently as five years ago, Lake Darling had a well-earned reputation as a premier smallmouth bass fishery. That claim received an exclamation point when Bruce Elberg of Burlington set a state record with a 6 pound, 13 ounce smallmouth. Then came a series of low water years compounded by low dissolved oxygen levels during the winter.
"When the water was down, that hurt them bad," said Ryckman.
King agreed, adding that winter kill didn't help the smallmouth population either.
"You combine the two, basically," said King. "It's two factors going against them and we had no reproduction. I think they just lost their habitat. We were planning on stocking bass in here last year but, with the flood and high water, it just didn't pay with the water moving through."
Smallmouths were last stocked in Lake Darling in 2002 and 2003. Further stockings were unnecessary because conditions in the reservoir in subsequent years remained favorable for smallmouths.
"Absolutely," agreed King. "Once we get fish back in here, with the habitat back, they'll do well."
A possible solution, says King, is to trap adult smallmouth elsewhere and transplant them to Lake Darling in an effort to jumpstart the population.
"There's a few smallies in Lake Darling. They are catching a few once in a while but it is really rare," noted King. "We just don't have the brood numbers out there for them to get back on their own."
Lake Darling has always had a population of perch. In fact, there have been many years when perch fishermen enjoyed terrific catches at Lake Darling. Perch numbers are high now. Recent netting confirmed excellent numbers and size. However, noted King, "If the pike keep growing, the perch numbers will start going the other way."
"We've seen more bullhead and quite a few more suckers than usual," said King after pulling a test net at Lake Darling. "Suckers are great forage, they're fatty. They are also pretty prolific when they have young ones. Still, they are a rough fish, an undesirable."