This year has been a very unusual one for North Dakota lakes. Evidence was plentiful throughout the state.
Lake Sakakawea was not declared "ice free" until May 13, the third latest ice-free date in that reservoir's history. Lake Darling wasn't ice free until May 10. It was the latest date anyone could remember for at least the last 35 years. Devils Lake still had visible ice on Tuesday, May 14. Other lakes throughout North Dakota also experienced unusually late ice cover.
In a normal year, ice would likely be off most of the state's lakes in mid-April. That's about the time N.D. Game and Fish Department fisheries biologists begin finalizing plans for spring netting. The netting is done to capture spawning-ready fish loaded with eggs. The eggs are artificially extracted, fertilized and hastened off to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, where they will be hatched under controlled conditions. Hatching success is much greater at the hatchery than what occurs in the wild.
Both northern pike and walleye are targeted by netting crews. Northern pike spawn a few weeks earlier than walleyes. They prefer running water but have been known to spawn under the ice if necessary.
While pike utilized vegetation on which to dispense their eggs, walleyes prefer shallow water over pebble and rock shorelines. Both water temperature and hours of daylight play a role in triggering the spawn.
This year, fisheries crews eager to capture spawning Lake Sakakawea walleyes knew they would have a limited amount of time to fill their nets. Late ice severely limited access. Even when open water was available, there was the very real possibility that changing winds would push ice back into bays and tear into capture nets. Biologist went from dodging ice flows to 90-degree temperatures in 24 hours.
Dave Fryda, North Dakota Game and Fish biologist, records the catch while others check a trap net for remaining fish. The net was one of several used to capture spawning walleyes near Parshall Bay.
"It caused a challenge from a spawning perspective because it condenses this into a small window and then the water gets too warm, too quick," said Dave Fryda, NDG&F biologist in Riverdale. Fryda oversees that status of fish for the entire Missouri River system within North Dakota.
"We started pushing 60-degree surface temps and it really hinders egg quality when we're spawning," explained Fryda this past Monday during netting at Parshall Bay. "A rapid warm-up this late in the year is not ideal, but it's a fact."
The state's quota for northern pike eggs was accomplished in two days in late April. Biologists found spawning pike in a small area of open water on Lake Oahe and at Rice Lake in Emmons County near the South Dakota border. Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake are generally counted on to meet the yearly quota of walleye eggs.
"This year was the latest for the first walleye egg take ever done in this state," noted Fryda.
The first walleye eggs were gathered May 9.
"All things considered, it has been pretty good so far," said Fryda this past week. "Our walleye catch at Parshall wasn't as good as it has been the last couple of years, but we're also dealing with lower lake elevations and less than optimal netting conditions."
A good number of healthy, spawning walleyes were captured in nets at Deepwater Bay and Parshall Bay, although the latter was tapering down early last week. Crews expected to move further east on Lake Sakakawea this past week in an effort to reach their goal of 400 quarts of walleye eggs. That equates to about 10 million young walleyes.
While obtaining eggs to be raised at the hatchery is the primary goal during spring netting, the operation also gives biologists a glimpse of fish that have been living under the ice for several months.
"Our adult population survey later in the year gives us a better overall look at the health of the population in the system," said Fryda. "Still, the fish are definitely in good conditions. We knew that they'd be in good condition even through we've had dropping water over the last year. They are still looking good. There are a lot of nice walleyes out there now. There's a lot of 5 pound-plus fish in the system and a lot of smaller males from the 2010 year class are starting to show up."
Although Fryda was commenting on walleyes, he added that there was a lot of pike in the Sakakawea system. Pike are coming off a couple of exceptional spawning years that has led to a bulging population of the feisty game fish. Walleyes are numerous and healthy and growing.
"This happens when you have water conditions that are conducive. The fishery is driven by water and the lack thereof," noted Fryda. "Things are good right now but we are 10 feet lower than we were last spring. Next year we could see conditions beginning to change and things could turn the other way again. Right now I wish we were 10 feet higher."
A vast amount of shoreline, most of which exposed near ideal cobble for spawning walleyes, remained high and dry in the Parshall Bay area last week. How much effect low water levels will have on natural reproduction won't be known until later this year, but conditions are not encouraging.
Forecasts say Lake Sakakawea could raise about 3 feet this summer, far less than during a normal runoff year, but runoff forecasts thus far in 2013 have failed to rise to expectations. Barring significant rainfall in the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone River basins in the coming weeks, the June runoff outlook could be adjusted downward once again.
Currently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says they expect 20 million acre-feet of runoff to enter the Missouri River system in 2013. That is 79 percent of normal. Soil moisture content in much of the basin has been so low that extensive infiltration has substantially reduced the amount of projected runoff. Long-term forecasts don't project any immediate change.
"The last 30 days has been mostly dry. We're generally worse than we were at this time last year," said Doug Kluck, Climate Prediction Center in Kansas City, when asked about moisture conditions in the Missouri River system.
Forecasts project Lake Sakakawea to peak this year at slightly over 1,831 feet in July. The reservoir was approaching 1,828 feet this past week. Sakakawea is projected to end May at 1,828.6 feet. To place that level in perspective, the bottom elevation of the boat ramp at the DeTrobriand Bay Marina at Fort Stevenson State Park is 1,823 feet. The ramp at the newer marina in Garrison Bay reaches to 1,790 feet.
Overall, access should not be a problem for watercraft on Lake Sakakawea this summer, mostly due to boat ramps previously constructed to accommodate high, medium and low water levels. However, if the trend of a dropping reservoir continues into 2014 it will rapidly approach a level of concern for interests all along Lake Sakakawea.
For now though, boaters and fishermen will enjoy plenty of access points for what is already a shortened season. The best news of all for fishermen is that angling opportunities on Sakakawea this summer may even be better than a year ago when fishermen enjoyed excellent success.
"Whether or not they bite this summer is the caveat, but there's lots of nice fish over 20 inches and a real strong bunch of 14- to 16-inch fish. Anglers should encounter those in pretty good numbers this year. There's bigger stuff, too," concluded Fryda.