- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Fishing always has been kind of a numbers game, whether one talks about daily and possession limits or stocking efforts.

In the last two decades, the numbers of fish stocked in North Dakota have directly correlated to the rise in fishable lakes in the state.

Jerry Weigel heads the stocking program for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Going back 20 years, he told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1jD4qED ), between 50 and 70 lakes were stocked with walleye fingerlings alone, not to mention stockings of other species.

This year, he said, 156 lakes in the state will get a share of the 9 million walleyes stocked.

As the number of fishable lakes has grown in the past two decades, so, too, has the interest in fishing.

North Dakota has seen record fishing license sales in the past two years. While some of that can be attributed to the rise in the state’s population because of the oil boom, it still means more people are fishing than ever before.

The evolution of the fish hatchery system in North Dakota is a story more than a half century in the making.

Weigel said historically there are documented stocking efforts that date back to the early 1900s. But, he said, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s when building hatcheries was first talked about.

Weigel said there were hatcheries in Lisbon, the Turtle Mountains and Spiritwood Lake, but the modern hatchery and stocking program got its start in the 1950s after the Garrison Dam was built.

“From that point forward, fish production really was available on an annual basis,” Weigel said.

He said in the late 1980s, the Game and Fish Department invested several million dollars expanding operations at the dam.

Today, the Game and Fish Department works in tandem with two national fish hatcheries - Garrison Dam and Valley City - to supply almost all of the fish that are stocked in North Dakota waters.

Keeping up with the demand has had its share of challenges, Weigel said.

In 1988, he said, the department managed 188 public fishing waters totaling slightly more than 99,000 acres. In 2014, that number has grown to 415 waters covering nearly 350,000 acres, excluding the Missouri River System.

Weigel said there are about another 20 lakes that have been stocked but the fish in them have yet to grow to a catchable size.

During the 2011 flood, the hatchery system at the Garrison Dam took a big hit when the spillway gates were opened for the first time in the history of the dam.

Opening the gates was necessary to evacuate record runoff into Lake Sakakawea, but it dramatically changed the spillway lake below that is the main water source for the Garrison Hatchery’s 401.5-acre rearing ponds known as the east unit.

“By and large, our intake was left high and dry,” Weigel said.

For the two years after the flood, huge pumps were rented to fill the ponds so production could continue, he said.

Weigel said a $500,000 project was recently completed to ensure a permanent fix to the water supply.

“So, we’re good to go again … and we’re definitely at a time where we can’t afford to have some ponds sitting idle,” he said.

In the past four years, the Game and Fish Department has stocked 38 million walleye fingerlings around the state. That is in addition to other species like bass, salmon, trout, northern pike, crappie, bluegills and others.

In a state where walleyes are king, one of the questions that anglers routinely ask is why not stock them in all lakes.

The ideal scenario, of course, would be for walleyes and all species to reproduce naturally once they are stocked in a lake. But in the case of smaller, shallower lakes that are prone to winterkill, Weigel said, that’s not an option.

Instead, species like pike that can tolerate lower dissolved oxygen content are stocked to provide anglers opportunities.

Weigel said in other situations, knowing the lake may be prone to die-offs, trout may be stocked each year to provide catchable fish.

Many of the trout stockings are in smaller, urban lakes that are more accessible to youth and older anglers, Weigel said.

Of course, the key to good fish production is forage. Back when the glaciers were carving out the landscape, species that naturally followed were pike and suckers, along with fathead and stickleback minnows, Weigel said.

In some cases, he said, Mother Nature needs a helping hand setting the dinner table for fish.

The yellow perch is a solid forage species in most lakes to provide that forage. Perch, however, are not a species routinely raised in a hatchery setting.

In recent years, Weigel said, crews have been out on lakes with good perch populations netting them right after ice-off, before they spawn.

The perch are stocked in other lakes to spawn out in the spring, providing a forage base for future years.

Weigel said with relatively decent weather this spring, crews were able to complete stockings of pike and other species in good shape and are in the process of wrapping up walleye stockings.

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


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