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Doug Leier: Fall fish production surveys offer hint of long-term fishing prospects

This year’s fall fish survey indicated that most waters in North Dakota fared as good as or better than expected. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)1 / 2
Doug Leier, North Dakota Game and Fish Department2 / 2

I grew up with the mindset that game wardens were busy during hunting season, wildlife biologists surveyed the birds and big game animals, and the busy time of year for fisheries biologists was spring and summer when spawning and stocking took place.

All those were correct, but I didn't understand until I got into my career in natural resources management, that these obvious busy times are just part of the story. Wardens are busy every month of the year. Wildlife biologists have multiple surveys, followed by analysis that leads to drafting of hunting seasons for the coming year, and fisheries biologists add in summer and fall surveys, and then they, too, analyze their findings and formulate regulations.

And so, it's not a surprise to learn about the findings of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's fall fish reproduction survey. In some ways, you can compare this to the summer upland game brood survey. The big difference is, the summer pheasant counts are an indicator of what the season will be like just a month or two down the road, while the fisheries surveys count young-of-the-year fish that won't reach "keeper" size for anglers for two to four years down the road.

This year's fall fish survey indicated that most waters in the state fared as good as or better than expected.

Scott Gangl, Game and Fish Department fisheries management section leader, said Lake Sakakawea had the eighth-highest catch of young-of-the-year walleye on record.

"There was good reproduction of most game species in the big lake, as we saw healthy numbers of pike, perch, smallmouth bass, white bass, crappies and walleye," Gangl said. "And it's the second year in a row of good walleye reproduction, which isn't a surprise, considering the high water is resulting in an abundance of food and habitat for the young fish."

Lake Oahe had good reproduction of walleye this year, as well, which Gangl said is not necessarily a good thing. "This is the fourth good year-class out of the last five years, leaving a lot of small fish out there right now," he said. "Lake Oahe is lacking forage, which causes fish to grow slower than they should."

Gangl said while there was some indication of gizzard shad reproduction in Lake Oahe in 2017, there wasn't much this year. "The cold winter didn't allow for much survival with this forage fish," he said.

Devils Lake had fair to good numbers of walleye, with the catch close to average even though Game and Fish didn't stock any walleye in the fishery this year. "The end result was all from natural reproduction," Gangl said.

Sampling results on smaller lakes generally vary from lake to lake. The common theme mentioned this year from fisheries personnel across the state is that the young-of-the-year fish were larger than normal. "This is significant because bigger fish generally have a better chance of surviving through the first winter," Gangl said, "and that's an important step in getting to a catchable size in the future."

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