BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The good news for Lake Sakakawea anglers is the level of the reservoir could rise as much as 10 feet this summer.
The question is will the rise come in time to coincide with the rainbow smelt spawn, the forage backbone of the lake.
Dave Fryda, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries manager in Riverdale, said conditions this spring are better for fish than a year ago.
Fryda said last spring, water levels were down going into May, which is crunch time for the smelt run. Smelt spawn along gravely, shallow shore lines from mid-to late April into May.
The ideal scenario is for the water level to rise steadily during that window to ensure their eggs remain covered with water and aren't left high and dry.
"We're better off than we were last spring," Fryda told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1hYseQR).
Last spring, ice came off the lake late. This year, shorelines are opening up on many parts of the lake.
The elevation of Lake Sakakawea stands at 1,836 feet thanks in part to a rise in March, something not typical for the reservoir. With snowpack in the two basins above Lake Sakakawea more than 30 percent higher than normal, the lake should be in good shape this summer in terms of fishing and access.
"Ultimately, we'll be sitting at good water levels all summer," Fryda said.
Fishing on Lake Sakakawea the past few years has been strong for a variety of species.
Northern pike numbers are off the charts. Smallmouth bass numbers are too, but it all comes down to forage.
The 2011 flooding pushed a lot of smelt and other bait fish through the Garrison Dam. While Sakakawea was able to absorb that hit, the effects have been felt more on the Missouri River below the dam.
"Our abundance of walleyes has come down substantially from a few years ago when the forage crashed," Fryda said.
The drop is a necessary first step in regaining the predator/prey balance on the river and the lake, he said.
Historically, the Tailrace portion the Missouri River has been one of the most consistent in terms of catching walleyes, but there hasn't been much of a bite the past couple of years.
On the South Dakota reach of the system, Fryda said, there have been some gains in forage numbers.
Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said plans are to step up releases through Garrison Dam to 25,000 cubic feet per second by the end of April. Jody Farhat, water management chief for the corps, said May releases should average around 27,000 cfs and around 30,000 in June.
As of Tuesday, the river level in Bismarck was at about 6.25 feet, a rise of nearly a foot over the past week. Discharges were hovering around 27,000 cfs Tuesday.
Paul Bailey, Game and Fish south central fisheries manager, said the higher flows on the Missouri River this summer should help the smelt and other forage fish spawn.
"That is the first step," he said. "Recovering that forage base so the system can support more adult walleye. That is what we are hoping will start that recovery this spring ... a good spawn of smelt and other forage fish."
Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com