- Associated Press - Friday, June 15, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Adult rainbow smelt are dying off in Lake Sakakawea, a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota considered one of the premier walleye fisheries in the Upper Midwest. But state wildlife officials and fishing guides say the problem appears worse than it likely is.

Smelt are a prime food for walleye, and the number of young and growing walleye in the lake is among the highest in decades. But there should be plenty of smelt to feed them all despite the die-off, according to the state Game and Fish Department.

“With a population estimate approaching 200 million smelt in 2017, a high abundance of healthy smelt remains in the lake,” said Dave Fryda, the agency’s fisheries supervisor for the Missouri River system.

The smelt population is the highest it’s been in decades because of a string of wet years that has created high lake levels, which leads to more cold-water habitat in which the baitfish thrive, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for Game and Fish. However, a high abundance of smelt also can lead to the spread of disease, which officials suspect is a contributing factor in this year’s die-off.

Most of the dead and dying smelt show signs of the Columnaris bacteria that has caused periodic die-offs since smelt were introduced in the 1970s to the lake created by the construction of Garrison Dam in the 1950s. Outbreaks of the bacteria typically occur when there are rapid changes in water temperature while the fish are stressed.

“The smelt recently spawned in Lake Sakakawea and were recovering from that stress when we experienced very high temperatures, which boosted the water temperature in the shallow bays where the smelt spawned,” Fryda said.

Evan Barker with Van Hook Guide Service said he hasn’t witnessed a huge die-off.

“It’s not like they’re laying all over the shoreline,” he said, adding that the game fish being caught this spring are of nice size and “they’re definitely eating well.”

Smelt feed not only walleye but also salmon and northern pike, two other game fish sought by the tens of thousands of anglers who frequent the lake every year. The impact of the bacteria outbreak on the smelt population won’t be known until this summer when fisheries crews survey the population, but Game and Fish isn’t overly worried.

“Although the visible impression left by the dead smelt has anglers concerned, the overall impact of this year’s die-off will likely be minimal,” Fryda said.


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