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Stocking doesn't always produce superior fishing

As a prairie kid in the 1980s, the image of a Game and Fish distribution truck backing up to a favorite small slough or reservoir and stocking fingerlings spawned daydreams of fishing.

As a prairie kid in the 1980s, the image of a Game and Fish distribution truck backing up to a favorite small slough or reservoir and stocking fingerlings spawned daydreams of fishing.

And, I remember the local chatter revolving around what kind of fish and how many were stocked. It was reassuring that fisheries crews were keeping waters not named Sakakawea or Devils Lake viable and important.

The truth is, in terms of stocking efforts, the numerous small waters around the state require a greater effort to maintain fisheries compared with the state's largest water bodies. While those waters also are stocked, it's usually because of unusual circumstances or to provide a niche fishing opportunity such as salmon. Otherwise, natural reproduction is much more effective.

The health of a fish population is more about aquatic habitat and food than just random stocking of fish. While stocking may stimulate our enthusiasm for future fishing success, the proper balance of forage, escape cover and in some cases in recent years, simply having water can be a limiting factor.

During the extended low water period on Lake Sakakwea, which at the moment is no longer an issue, many a suggestion was brought forward to "fix" the fishery, when in actuality, without the needed water, Sakakawea was functioning as best possible. Like a four-cylinder engine running on two, it just didn't work as well, and wouldn't have produced better walleye health.

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This holds true for many waters in North Dakota.

If your favorite fishing hole seems to be struggling, pushing area fisheries staff to simply stock more fish or different species to adjust the predator-prey combination isn't a sure-fire method of improving fishing. In some cases, water quality issues require attention before stocking, or the lake may have problematic competition from bullheads or other fish that will limit success of stocked fish, regardless of how many are put in the lake.

Another example for comparison is that when a pasture is suffering from drought and the grass is gone, putting more cows out will not improve the quality of existing livestock.

These examples are an attempt to foster a better understanding of why when Game and Fish is requested to stock Lake X, the answer usually is something like "we'll check the existing chemistry, population surveys and historical stocking," rather than, "sure, we'll dump some fish in."

Scott Gangl leads the fisheries management section for the Game and Fish Department, and he says biologists also look at environmental conditions. "Warm conditions, early in the season, really boost growth and survival of young fish," he said, "but cool conditions can do the opposite."

So, while the recharging of reservoirs and lakes across North Dakota is a welcome turning point in the recent drought cycle, the cool and late spring wasn't any help. "Good reproduction or stocking success is certainly the first step to good fishing," Gangl explained, "but those little fish have to survive their first couple of winters before they get to a size that anglers can catch."

That's a big difference from game birds that grow from egg to adult-sized in just a couple of months. So, while Game and Fish Department biologists stocked a record number of fish this year into a record number of lakes, it will be at least a couple of years yet before anglers discover how successful that effort was.

In the meantime, we're fortunate that many lakes already have good fishing right now.

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Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov . Read his blog daily at www.areavoices.com/dougleier .

Related Topics: FISHING
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