Walleyes in Devils Lake are doing well, but anglers can expect to sort through a lot of smaller fish to find “keepers,” based on the current makeup of the population.

That’s one of the findings from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s summer adult fish population survey, an annual assessment the department conducts to sample walleyes, northern pike, yellow perch and white bass.

According to Todd Caspers, district fisheries biologist for Game and Fish in Devils Lake, this year’s survey yielded an average of 26.1 walleyes per net, compared with the long-term average of 20.9 walleyes per net.

Todd Caspers, district fisheries biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake.
Todd Caspers, district fisheries biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake.

That was dominated by 10- to 15-inch walleyes, at 16.9 per net, Caspers said, up from the long-term average of 9.4 and last year’s catch of 9.6. By comparison, the survey yielded 3.9 walleyes per net in the 15- to 20-inch size range -- the preferred keepers -- down from the long-term average of 5.6, he said.

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“They might be a little small right now, but there’s still those keeper-size fish out there,” he said. “It’s just that they’re going to be harder to catch than people have gotten used to. You have to sort through quite a few little ones.”

Among other species, northern pike averaged 3.4 per net, up slightly from the long-term average of 3.1; perch averaged 6.5, down from the long-term average of 11.3; and white bass averaged 15.9, up substantially from the long-term average of about 5.

The white bass population is dominated by 12- to 15-inch fish from a massive hatch in 2015, Caspers said. The survey produced 14.5 white bass per net in the 12- to 15-inch range, compared with the long-term average of 2.4, he said.

Based on those numbers, anglers who savor the fight of a scrappy white bass are in for some good times in the next few years.

“That’s a record catch for that size group,” Caspers said. “We always figured we’d have a lot of white bass in that size range. They showed up in that size range a year after they were hatched, so we knew there was quite a few of them out there. Maybe not quite as many as they turned out to have, but we knew they had a good hatch.”

Game and Fish has conducted the survey on Devils Lake since 1992, Caspers said, setting 39 nets at 15 sites from East Devils Lake west to Pelican Lake and leaving them overnight. This year’s survey began July 8 and wrapped up July 18.

“It went pretty much how we figured,” Caspers said. “We figured there’d be pretty good numbers of those smaller walleyes and kind of fewer of those prime keeper-size, which isn’t that surprising considering from 2013 to 2015, we had three year-classes in a row that weren’t that good.”

By comparison, there were three strong year-classes from 2016 to 2018, he said, the 10- to 15-inch fish anglers now are catching.

“That was well above average and increased quite a bit from last year, too,” he said. “We’ve had a few better year-classes in a row now, so that’s where that number is coming from.

“There are a lot of small fish out there.”

Here’s a closer look at the survey results for the four main species.

Walleyes

In addition to an abundance of smaller walleyes and fewer keeper-size fish, the number of larger walleyes is near long-term averages, Caspers said. Game and Fish stocked 900,100 walleye fingerlings in 2019, more than 1.4 million fingerlings in 2017 and more than 1.7 million fingerlings in 2016 to supplement natural reproduction.

Overall, there seemed to be fewer walleyes sampled on the east side of the lake than the west during the survey period, Caspers said, but no major trends stood out during the survey. The size breakdown for walleyes was as follows:

  • 10 to 15 inches: 16.9 walleyes per net, up from the long-term average of 9.4

  • 15 to 20 inches: 3.9 per net, down from the average of 5.6.

  • 20 to 25 inches: 1.1 per net, down slightly from the long-term average of 1.3.

  • 25 to 30 inches: 0.4 per net, up slightly from the long-term average of 0.3

Northern pike

Pike abundance, at 3.4 fish per net, was slightly above the average of 3.1. The size breakdown was as follows:

  • 21 to 28 inches: 1.7 pike per net, compared with the long-term average of 2.

  • 28 to 34 inches: 1.3 per net, up from the average of 0.8.

  • 34 to 44 inches: 0.3 per net, up from the average of 0.1.

“We’re a little above average on large pike,” Caspers said. “There are some good pike in the lake for sure.”

Perch

The overall perch catch was 6.5 per net, down from the long-term average of 11.3. By sizes, the catch was as follows:

  • 5 to 8 inches: 2.4 pike per net, down from the long-term average of 5.2.

  • 8 to 10 inches: 2.3, down from the average of 3.

  • 10 to 12 inches: 1.5, down from the average of 2.4.

  • 12 to 15 inches: 0.3, down from the long-term average of 0.7.

“It wasn’t a great perch catch,” Caspers said. “We’ve had a few year-classes but nothing big for several years. 2013 was the last real big perch hatch we’ve had, so they just haven’t recruited all that well.”

White bass

The overall population is well above average, based on survey results, at 15.9 white bass per net, Caspers said, more than triple the long-term average of 5. A closer look:

  • 6 to 9 inches: 0.3 white bass per net, down from a long-term average of 0.6.

  • 9 to 12 inches: 1.3, down slightly from an average of 1.5.

  • 12 to 15 inches: 14.5 per net, substantially higher than the long-term average of 2.4 and a record catch for white bass in that size range.

  • 15 to 18 inches: 0.2 per net, down from the average of 0.5