North Dakota has a year-round fishing season including for game fish. The harvest of big fish in spring before walleye or northern pike have spawned is a common coffee-shop topic. Some anglers wonder whether we should have a closed season, or alternately, whether we should have some type of fish-length restriction that would reduce harvest of larger fish.
First, a little background.
In 1993, Game and Fish made the decision to have a year-round fishing season statewide. At the time, the Missouri River system was already open to walleye and pike harvest year-round, but the "game fish" season was closed in the rest of the state from mid-March to early May, a regulation that dated back at least to the 1930s.
Before implementing a year-round season, biologists evaluated the pros and cons. At the time, the concern wasn't so much whether anglers would over-harvest pre-spawn fish, but whether eliminating a traditional fishing opener would dampen angler enthusiasm. Also, opening the harvest season from mid-March to early May would greatly increase shore fishing opportunities throughout the state for underutilized northern pike populations.
In nearly two decades since then, the year-round season has been mostly well received. Anglers like the extra opportunity, and biologically, any additional harvest of pre-spawn fish has not shown to be a detriment in any of our fishing waters.
But every spring, and maybe this spring more than most because we could have open water statewide very early, we hear concerns from anglers who witness or see pictures of people keeping some big, heavy, egg-bearing female pike or walleye caught from lakeshores, below dams or in constricted rivers or channels.
While these fish are potential producers, we all know there are far more not being caught and each having the potential of providing tens of thousands of eggs. It's basically a numbers game for fish.
For the most part, a stringer full of big walleye or pike taken before the spawning run may make the anglers look like game hogs in the eyes of some people, but it doesn't hurt the fishery any more than catching and keeping those same fish over Memorial Day weekend.
That said, experimental or restrictive regulations are always an option if it appears there is a need and the regulation can be fairly evaluated in a manner that produces reliable results, so we know it was the right thing to do for the fishery in the long term.
Fisheries biologists annually assess adult fish populations and reproduction on major waters, and Game and Fish monitors fishing success through creel surveys as well. These findings are essential in determining if and when regulation changes are needed.
It's a good thing to have concerned anglers and hunters who ask the Game and Fish Department, through electronic communications or otherwise, for more restrictions when they feel our resources may be threatened.
While space limits hinder me from going deeper into the subject, there are more details available on the Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov/fishing/faq#p20.
Whether you choose to keep big fish or release them, it's going to be a great year for fishing in North Dakota.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org