- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Fish in North Dakota’s lakes have survived the winter better than any time on record, due largely to mild weather, meager snowfall and high lake levels, according to the state Game and Fish Department.

“It’s been the best winter ever for lack of winterkill,” said Greg Power, the state fisheries chief. “That’s good news for fishermen.”

Biologists have been sampling lakes for fish mortality each spring for at least 50 years, Power said.

Oxygen for fish is limited when snowfall blocks light into the lakes, preventing photosynthesis. Plants die and stop giving off oxygen, and then the plants consume oxygen as they decompose.

North Dakota typically has winterkill at about 10 lakes annually. Record snowfall across North Dakota during the 2008-09 winter led to a major fish kill on about 50 lakes. That winter was similar to that of 1996-97, the worst in years for fish kills, he said.

The state manages about 420 lakes and “less than a handful” had any perceptible fish mortality and none were severe, he said. The number of fishing lakes in North Dakota has grown by about 140 in the past few years due to wet weather and heavy snowfall.

Low water levels often contribute to fish mortality, he said.

“We’re in good shape water-level wise and we didn’t have much snow at all,” Power said. “That’s the perfect formula for preventing winterkill.”

Any lake that has had winterkill is restocked in the spring.

Even lakes that have suffered winter kill in the past ultimately benefit from the heavy snowfall, which refreshes and refills the lakes, biologists say.

Jon Dircks, owner of Ed’s Bait Shop in Devils Lake, said he has not heard from anglers of any fish die-offs over the winter.

“Of course, that could change next year,” he said.

Dircks joked that it could happen even sooner because north-central North Dakota was getting snow flurries on Monday.

“We’ve been getting a heck of a lot of crappy weather but a week ago it was nice and it was like a zoo here,” Dircks said. “By Memorial Day, everything should be good.”

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