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Dokken: With exception of Oahe, summer fishing and boating outlook favorable across North Dakota

Out of some 450 lakes statewide, only about a dozen had substantial winterkill.

Walleye.jpg
Walleye populations look good for summer 2022 on Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake and numerous smaller lakes.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

BISMARCK – Going into this past winter, fisheries biologists for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had some real concerns about the potential for winter fish kills and springtime boat ramp challenges because of last summer’s extremely hot, dry summer and resulting low water levels.

Those concerns are gone, Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said Tuesday night during the department’s District 7 advisory board meeting at Game and Fish headquarters.

A total of 45 people attended the Bismarck meeting, and another 96 – including yours truly – caught the meeting via the livestream the department offered on its website. Game and Fish is mandated to hold the advisory board meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.

Concerns about winter fish kills began to evaporate when fisheries crews started checking dissolved oxygen levels in some of the smaller district lakes across the state that are prone to die-offs, Power said. Out of some 450 lakes statewide, only about a dozen had substantial winterkill.

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That’s “far, far less than what we projected last fall,” Power said. “It’s incredible that we got through the winter in such good shape.”

Typical of advisory board meetings, big game issues such as chronic wasting disease, EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and the 8,000-license reduction in deer gun tags this fall dominated the agenda Tuesday night, but the news on the fishing front bodes well for summer – when and if it ever arrives.

The recent barrage of blizzards and rain events across much of the state has pushed up water levels pretty much everywhere. Devils Lake, for example, has come up a foot and a half this spring, Power said, and the Mauvais Coulee near Cando, North Dakota, on Tuesday was at record flows for April 26.

“There’s a lot of water starting to pour into Devils Lake again,” Power said. “The issues we had there about (boating) access are ‘Going, going, gone’ – for at least another year or two.”

Statewide, “we saw a lot of good news in terms of boating access,” he said.

Turns out the barrage of cruddy April weather we’ve suffered through is good for something after all – at least from a fishing and boating access perspective.

“It’s starting to look like, statewide, on a lot of our small lakes where we had all kinds of concerns about how we were going to be able to keep up with boat ramps out there, we might be OK,” Power said.

The boating access picture isn’t quite as rosy along the Missouri River system, he said.

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“From Garrison down to Bismarck, we’re OK,” Power said. The biggest issue is Oahe, where only two or three boat ramps could be accessible this spring and summer.

“There’s not much you can do when you don’t have water,” he said. That could change if this month’s wet cycle persists.

“We could have this continue for a month and that would be a real game changer,” he said.

Greg Power
Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

On Lake Sakakawea, low lake elevation levels currently are affecting 32 of the reservoir’s 35 access sites, but the department is partnering with locals and other agencies to get ramps operational or clear sediment from low water ramps that were built the last time the lake was very low, Power said.

“The bottom line is, I think our hopes are that by Memorial Day weekend, 32 of the 35 access sites on Sakakawea are going to be operational,” he said. “And it could be better if the lake keeps coming up.”

As for fishing prospects, walleye populations are good on both Devils Lake and Sakakawea, he said, “and not so good” on Oahe.

“That’s really the only challenging fishery out there,” Power said. “It’s kind of a broken record, but Sakakawea is still in good shape.”

Smelt, which Power called the “backbone” of the Sakakawea fishery, are in very good shape, driven by strong numbers of 3- and 4-year-old fish. Considering smelt only live 3 or 4 years, another strong year-class will be necessary to keep populations of walleyes and other game fish booming.

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“A 4-year-old smelt is an old smelt, so we need a year-class every other year for sure,” Power said. That hasn’t happened for the past three or four years, so “we really need a year-class this year,” he said.

Thanks to the blizzard- and rain-induced influx of water, the outlook for North Dakota’s smaller lakes also is optimistic, Power says.

“All these new 450 lakes – a couple hundred of them are walleye lakes,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunities – incredible fisheries, in some cases.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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