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Game and Fish proposal would allow darkhouse spearing for walleyes on Devils Lake, Missouri River System

Under the proposal, darkhouse spearing would be allowed for walleyes on Devils Lake and the Missouri River System beginning April 1, 2022, when the state’s next two-year package of fishing regulations takes effect. Currently, darkhouse spearing in North Dakota is limited to northern pike and nongame fish species.

NDGF spearing photo
Darkhouse spearing would be expanded to walleyes on Devils Lake and the Missouri River System under a North Dakota Game and Fish Department proposal that would take effect April 1, 2022, the beginning of the state's next two-year package of fishing regulations. Darkhouse spearing in North Dakota currently is limited to northern pike and nongame fish. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Big game issues and discussions about chronic wasting disease and epizootic hemorrhagic disease – known as CWD and EHD, for short – and their impact on North Dakota deer herds dominated the agenda Thursday night, Dec. 2, in Grand Forks during the Game and Fish Department’s fall advisory board meeting for the northeast part of the state.

But the packed house attending the meeting in UND’s Memorial Union also heard about a proposal to allow darkhouse spearing for walleyes on Devils Lake and the Missouri River System beginning April 1, 2022, when the state’s next two-year package of fishing regulations takes effect.

Currently, darkhouse spearing in North Dakota is limited to northern pike and nongame fish species.

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“We’ve had a lot of requests the last 10 years” to expand darkhouse spearing to walleyes, Greg Power, fisheries chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said during the Dec. 2 meeting. “We’re not concerned about overharvest or too many big fish being taken out, but those that do darkhouse spearfish for pike see the occasional walleye go by, and they say, ‘Why can’t we take one or two a day maybe?’ ”

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Greg Power, NDGF.jpg
Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Given the potential impact on smaller waters, Game and Fish limited the proposal to Devils Lake and the Missouri River System, Power said. Harvest impact would likely be minimal because walleyes often inhabit deeper water, he said, but that would be assessed.

“We’ve said for 10 years we’re studying it, and I guess we’re done studying it,” Power added. “So we’d like to give that an opportunity.”

South Dakota already offers the opportunity to spear walleyes, Power said.

Other changes proposed for the 2022-24 fishing proclamation:

  • Allow spear fishing year-round: There already is a year-round archery season for nongame fish, with no negative impact, the department says, and expanding the year-round season to include spearing would further simplify fishing regulations while expanding recreational opportunities, if only marginally.

  • Increase the daily statewide limit for smallmouth bass and largemouth bass from 3 to 5. This proposal, the department says, would allow anglers to take full advantage of thriving bass populations – especially smallmouth – and bring limits closer in line with South Dakota and Minnesota, where bass limits are 5 and 6, respectively.

Paddlefish snaggers also can expect a change. Beginning next spring, snaggers will only be able to buy their tags online, which means they will have to plan accordingly and allow for the time it takes to receive the tag by mail. Tags will no longer be available over the counter.

Deer disease discussions

Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for the Game and Fish Department, offered an update on EHD and CWD in North Dakota. Caused by a biting midge, or “no-see-um,” EHD was especially severe along the Missouri River this fall, although localized die-offs also occurred for the first time in the northern Red River Valley.

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Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“It really thrives in wet organic material, and droughts where you have a receding waterline are really conducive to producing midges,” Bahnson said. “So, if you have this area that’s full of midges, and you have a deer that stumbles into the area with this virus in its blood, it can pretty quickly become an environmental source of infection to any other deer in that area, and that was really what was happening across the state.”

EHD cases typically subside after the first hard frosts, but above-average temperatures this year persisted well into October, prolonging the impact of the disease.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Bahnson said. “It was a pretty devastating year in terms of mortality when it comes to EHD.”

Meanwhile, an unexpected case of CWD found in a whitetail buck taken southwest of Climax, Minnesota, in October, during Minnesota’s youth deer season, forced the Game and Fish Department to set up last-minute sampling efforts just days before the deer gun season in Unit 2B, a massive unit along the Red River extending from Grand Forks south to Fargo.

A brain disease that’s fatal to deer, elk and moose, CWD had never been found in the area, and was only detected because the youth season deer was tested voluntarily.

With collection sites in Grand Forks, Hillsboro and Fargo, Game and Fish was able to collect about 85 deer heads for testing from 2B, Bahnson said, compared with the 65 collected by the Minnesota DNR in permit areas 261 and 262 on the Minnesota side of the river, where the positive case occurred.

Test results on all of the samples except the positive Minnesota case from October are pending.

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“We’re approaching a new era where, regardless of where you hunt in the state, (CWD) is kind of in your neck of the woods now,” Bahnson said. “It warrants a shift in behavior and some consideration with how we move from preventing it or move from this point in time where it was something (that was) somewhere else to, ‘It’s now in our laps and how do we move forward living in the long-term with CWD?’ ”

What happens next in Unit 2B will depend on the test results from samples collected this fall on both sides of the Red River, Bahnson said. Making baiting illegal in 2B is among the options, he said.

“Our typical protocol, when we find a positive in units that fall within 25 miles, we do a baiting restriction, and so that will certainly be a consideration for next year for Unit 2B,” Bahnson said.

Perhaps, some people in the audience suggested Dec. 2, baiting should be banned statewide in North Dakota, a proposal that was shot down by the Legislature a few years ago. Baiting already is illegal in Minnesota. In North Dakota, baiting is prohibited in deer hunting units with CWD and on public lands.

“At this point in time, we’re kind of piecemeal as far as our (baiting) restrictions go,” said Jeb Williams, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “I think a person can make the case that it probably is time to have a much more serious discussion on being really preventative, doing the best thing we can do, and (eliminate baiting) across the board.

“It’s not a popular discussion with a lot of people, I get that,” Williams added. “But when the department is looking out for the best possible thing for protecting our deer herd in North Dakota, I think we’re at that point in time where we can make that case.”

Game and Fish is mandated to hold advisory board meetings every spring and fall in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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