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Doug Leier: Walleyes grow faster in North Dakota's 'new' nutrient-rich prairie lakes

With walleyes growing faster in these new prairie waters, anglers have opportunities to catch good-sized fish a few years after the lake is stocked. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)1 / 2
Doug Leier, North Dakota Game and Fish Department2 / 2

While North Dakota's new fishing season officially began April 1, at that time pretty much anywhere outside of the Missouri River, people who were fishing were still drilling holes in the ice.

The ice is gone now, and the state's lakes are open for open-water fishing. Once again, North Dakota anglers have nearly 450 waters from which to choose, which may not sound like a lot, but consider this: In 1950, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department listed only 30 fishable waters in the state.

By 1971, ongoing creation of small and larger reservoirs and management efforts on other bodies of water that had potential for supporting fish life had pushed that total up to 110. In 1990, the fishing waters list was up to 186, which was a significant accomplishment considering "dry" and "drought" were common terms in the 1980s.

At that time, no one could have imagined the transformation that would take place on North Dakota's landscape. A wet cycle began in 1993, and it didn't take long for enough water to start accumulating to enhance existing lakes and create new ones.

Through natural fish movement and opportunistic stocking, North Dakota had 340 managed fishing waters by 2010, and with another surge of moisture from 2009-11, another hundred lakes came on board.

"At least 50 of those new lakes are producing good walleye," said Greg Power, Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief, in an article published in the February 2018 issue of North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine.

An interesting phenomenon of the new lakes is their productivity, which allows them to grow "keeper"-size walleye in less time than a well established body of water. Scott Gangl, department fisheries management section leader, said in the article that the technical term for this productivity is "trophic upsurge."

"It's an explosion of nutrients, insects and resources fish thrive on," he said. "When you flood vegetation or soil that had been dry, the nutrients are released into the water. Insects feed on these nutrients, and minnows — mostly fathead minnows in North Dakota — eat the insects, and this provides a fantastic food source for predatory fish, like walleyes."

Biologists have found that the average walleye in traditional waters, such as Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe or Lake Tschida, is 6 inches long at the end of the first growing season, 10 inches after two growing seasons. 14 inches after three seasons and 16 inches after four seasons.

By contrast, walleyes in the nutrient-rich new prairie lakes, such as Sibley (Kidder County), Lehr Wildlife Management Area (McIntosh County), Kraft (Sargent County) and Twin Lakes (LaMoure County), are 9 inches at the end of the first season, 14 inches after two seasons, 16 inches after three seasons and 18 inches after four seasons.

With walleyes growing faster in these new prairie waters, anglers have opportunities to catch good-sized fish a few years after the lake is stocked.

While we do indeed live in the "good old days" of fishing in North Dakota, that still doesn't mean limits for everyone, but the opportunities are better than ever.