- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

STRASBURG, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s walleye population instantly soared by 10 million thanks to the single largest stocking program in state history.

Through this week and into next, more than 1 million fish will have been on the road every day. The silvery minnow-sized critters are being transported in specialized tanker units and splish-splashed into fishing lakes in every corner of the state.

It’s all part of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s goal to create as much fishing opportunity for anglers as possible during a time when there are more fishing lakes in the state than ever before.

Jerry Weigel, head of the department’s fish development program, was out with a tanker unit this week delivering baby walleyes to several lakes in and around the region east of the Missouri River. It’s sauerkraut country down there, from Strasburg over to Ellendale, but locals are taking to the idea that those growing prairie potholes can deliver some good walleye, especially with the department’s help.

“I really look forward to this,” Weigel told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1LJHCBN ). “It’s honestly my vacation.”

He stopped at Rice Lake, southeast of Strasburg, and dumped 80,000 squirmy fingerlings into the clear green water. He gave them a bit of encouragement as they poured out of a large bucket.

“Come on, come on, I want to see your backs not your bellies,” he said.

Sure enough, within seconds, they’d all wiggled away, nary a floater in the mix.

“I know the fish will do well and someone will have fun with these,” he said.

This same scene is being repeated at 140 lakes on the walleye stocking list this year. The number of stocked lakes has been creeping up over the past five to 10 years, just as the water levels have been rising during this prolonged wet cycle that has increased the number of fishable lakes from a historic 200 to well over 400 now.

Rice Lake is a bit of an outlier in that regard, since it’s been around a long time. But it’s right on the western edge of a region where sloughs have become new lakes.

And when the department can ensure public access and a depth of at least 10 feet, those new lakes get added to the list and stocked for three to five years to get it off to a good start.

Mother Nature is in charge of the depth, but private property owners are primarily in charge of access.

“We are so fortunate to have such awesome landowners out there who provide public access,” said Paul Bailey, South Central District fisheries supervisor.

Bailey said he’s seen the number of fishable lakes in southern counties more than double in eight years, from 45 to 105. Some are small at 30 acres. Others, like Alkaline Lake on the border of Kidder and Logan counties, cover up to 5,000 acres.

Weigel said having so many good fishing lakes east of Bismarck takes a lot of pressure off of the Missouri River.

“Look at this,” he says, waving out to the calm expanse of Rice Lake, with not one boat puttering anywhere out there. “They can come out here with their boat and get the whole lake to themselves. There’s another 100 lakes like this today.”

Some lakes have pretty good natural reproduction but the department’s maintenance program gives the fish population a reliable boost, said Weigel.

“The quality of walleye fishing is really good. When our biologists are out there sampling, instead of a handful, they’ll come back saying, ‘Wow, there’s a really nice population in a lot of these lakes,’ ” Weigel said.

Weigel says no other state in the country has such an ambitious walleye stocking program. South Dakota, for example, will stock between 1.5 and 2 million this year; Montana somewhere between 2 and 3 million.

North Dakota has an advantage in that it can work with two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Hatcheries, one at Garrison Dam and one at Valley City.

The service has 80 acres of fish hatchery divided into 64 ponds. Of those, 62 were devoted to walleye this year and the hope is that, by Wednesday, Garrison Dam will deliver 8 million fingerlings and Valley City 3 million. That’s a little cushion for the 10 million walleye order -1 million more than any year prior.

Those teeny-tiny fingerlings that got dropped into the cool early summer waters will pay dividends in the long haul. In four years they’ll reach one pound and make some nice eating.

___

Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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