Two years ago, North Dakota was soaked, as wet as it had been in years. An abundance of water across much of the state, including a 500-year flood along the course of the Missouri River, altered the fishing landscape.
From a wildlife perspective, some changes were positive and some negative. Whether the outcome, the pros compared to the cons, was a wash is a matter of perspective.
“As a general rule, more water leads to good things for North Dakota’s fisheries,” said Paul Bailey, North Dakota Game and Fish Department south central district fisheries supervisor.
The abundant precipitation created a number of new lakes and marginal waters got deeper, decreasing the odds of summer and winter fish kills. Starting in 2009, North Dakota saw an increase in the number of lakes, and 2011 added to that list. Today, there are more than 400 fishing lakes, which is a record for the state.
“With shallow, marginal lakes, there is a lot of decomposition, which uses up much of the oxygen fish need to survive,” said Scott Gangl, Department fisheries management section leader. “By increasing the volume of water in these lakes, the fish have more room to roam and can escape where the oxygen is being consumed by decomposition.”
Bailey said Logan WMA and Wentz WPA, two shallow, budding walleye fisheries in Logan County, would have likely suffered summer or winterkills if not for the substantial increase in the volume of water. “Logan and Wentz are just a couple of examples of shallow waters in south central North Dakota that benefited,” he said. “There are a number of waters across the state that fisheries biologists could add to this list.”
Some lakes, especially those with high salinity, were refreshed with snowmelt and rain, making the habitat more conducive to fish survival. “Lakes with salinity issues affect the reproduction of walleye, perch …” Gangl said. “Too much salt will kill the eggs.”
Flood waters also inundated untold acres of terrestrial vegetation, providing spawning habitat for a variety of fish species, and nursery cover for newly hatched young, said Jason Lee, Department north central district fisheries supervisor.
“Plants, such as cattails, provide habitat for adhesive northern pike eggs to attach to until they hatch,” Lee said. “Perch drape their skeins – egg sacks full of eggs – over flooded vegetation until they are ready to hatch. Without this type of habitat, perch and pike eggs will be deposited in the soft, muddy bottom of lakes where spawning success is lower.”
Nursery habitat is important as it offers cover for young walleye, perch, pike and forage fish to hide from predators. “In addition, the flooded vegetation fuels the food chain by stimulating bug production to feed young fish,” Lee said. “In some lakes, the benefits of a major flooding event will be seen for many years. For example, a strong year-class of walleye, perch and pike can provide anglers with good fishing opportunities for the life of the fish, which can be 20 years or more for some fish.”
When the Missouri River flooded in 2011, and water pushed its way into areas that hadn’t been that wet since the creation of Garrison Dam in 1953, native species once accustomed to the seasonal ebbs and flows of the river, benefited.
“The Missouri River would flood on a pretty regular basis before Garrison Dam was built, which was important to native fish such as gar, buffalo and blue suckers, as it provided them the opportunity to fulfill part of their lifecycles,” Gangl said. “While some people might not see this as a benefit, it was a benefit to the fish.”
Big, undammed rivers are accustomed to the shifting and changing of the channel. “Much to the dismay of homeowners who now have big sandbars in front of their homes, the redistribution of sediment provides a pretty dynamic mosaic of braided channels and backwater habitats that are important to fish,” Gangl said.
While many fish and forage species were lost through entrainment on dams such as Garrison and Oahe, high water at Lake Darling flushed many fish into the Souris River, creating new shore-fishing opportunities.
“The tremendous entrainment wasn’t great news for Darling, but it was a good thing for anglers along the Souris River,” Gangl said. “There was and continues to be tremendous fishing for pike and walleye downstream of the dam, as fish were distributed throughout the reach of the river.”
High water on river systems farther east, such as the Sheyenne and James, enabled fish to easily maneuver over lowhead dams that regularly blocked them most years from moving into new reaches to spawn.
While more water typically leads to positives for North Dakota’s fisheries, the fallout of flooding can also cause problems for fish.
“The unprecedented precipitation of 2011 created many connections between lakes that facilitated movement of fish from one lake to another,” Bailey said. “In some cases, predatory walleye and northern pike were able to enter lakes that were being managed for yellow perch. This may impact some of the perch fisheries, but angling opportunities will likely remain good in many of these lakes.”
In other cases, new lake-to-lake connections may have more severe consequences by allowing the introduction of undesirable fish, such as white sucker, black bullhead or common carp, the state’s top aquatic nuisance species.
Alkaline Lake in Kidder County serves as a good example. “In May 2011, Alkaline, which doesn’t contain carp, reached its natural outlet and water began flowing through the 15-mile-long valley to Lake Isabel, which does contain carp,” Bailey said. “Fortunately, the Game and Fish Department was able to work with a landowner in the valley to install a fish barrier to prevent carp from entering Alkaline Lake.”
Just getting to some of North Dakota’s fishing waters was difficult, or out of the question, in 2011, said Greg Power, Department fisheries chief.
“At its worst, we had 20 lakes that were inaccessible across the state,” Power said. “Some farm-to-market roads that led to productive fishing lakes took more than a year to repair. Along with that, we had some infrastructure issues with vault toilets and fishing piers. Some boat ramps are still under water today.”
On the Missouri River, the embankment that created Riverdale Spillway Lake was breached, drastically lowering the lake level and exposing a permanent pump used to fill 40 Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery ponds. The ponds annually yield millions of pike and walleye fingerlings used to stock lakes statewide.
“Starting in 2012, we had to rent pumps, at $50,000 per year,” Power said. “In 2014, we hope to have a permanent pump in place for the hatchery ponds.”
High water on the Missouri River System washed away more than Spillway Lake, as many game and forage fish were swept through Garrison and Oahe dams.
Entrainment (loss) of rainbow smelt through Garrison Dam was estimated at 38 percent, while 88 percent of the smelt in Lake Oahe were ushered downstream by high water. Today, forage for game fish in the fishery between Garrison and Oahe dams is significantly depressed.
“To give you some perspective on the number of fish, not just forage fish, that washed through Garrison Dam during the flood, fisheries biologists estimated that there were 1,500 to 2,000 Yellowstone-Sakakawea stock of paddlefish in the Tailrace area in 2012,” Gangl said of the of paddlefish targeted each May in western North Dakota by snaggers.
Power said entrainment in 2011 wasn’t limited to the Missouri River System as other reservoirs in North Dakota are feeling the loss of prey today. “Jamestown Reservoir, for example, lost spottail shiners and minnows and now the reservoir is dealing with an inadequate forage base,” he said. “There are a lot of thin fish, with not a lot to eat.”
While high water is typically a good thing in terms of fish reproduction, it wasn’t in 2011 as the nursery habitat for fish in Lake Oahe was eliminated, and turbidity throughout much of the system hindered photosynthesis and the production of zooplankton. “Without zooplankton, there wasn’t anything for the fish to eat once they hatched,” Gangl said.
Power said the loss of rainbow smelt and other forage fish in the Missouri River System is a short-term issue that will right itself. Changes to the makeup of the river, however, will take years to work out.
“The Missouri River fishery was so good for years because it had diverse habitat – sandbars above the waterline, side channels and backwater areas,” Power said. “Much of that habitat is gone after being deposited on point bars or on the floodplain below Bismarck. The Garrison Reach of the Missouri is not void of good fish habitat, but there is certainly less of it.”
Power said the channel bottom from Bismarck upstream is 1-2 feet lower than before the flood. “The river is now deeper and narrower,” he said. “The 100 million dollar question is when will the river be able to restore itself? We don’t have any idea.”
Fish habitat conditions are far better downstream of Bismarck where the water slows and sediment is deposited. “Some sediment is positive as it keeps the river changing and alive,” Power said.
What were once good fishing spots are no longer. “With the loss of current breaks and sandbars, there are fewer spots where fish can rest to find food and avoid predation,” Gangl said. “Having fewer of those kinds of places means we might have fewer fish, and what remains won’t be as widely distributed throughout the system.”
From May through August 2011, thanks to high water and strong flows not seen in at least 60 years, there was only one useable boat ramp on the Missouri River from Garrison Dam to the South Dakota border.
By mid-October, most of the 22 ramps that dot that 140-mile stretch of river were up and running, but certainly not at full speed.
“As soon as floodwaters started going down, we dropped everything and devoted resources to cleaning the debris and sand off ramps to get anxious anglers on the river for the fall walleye bite,” said Bob Frohlich, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries development supervisor.
Fishing and boating are signature activities on the Missouri River System. More than half of all North Dakota anglers report fishing annually on the system, and 37 percent of the statewide fishing effort occurs here. Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River/Lake Oahe are consistently two of the top three fisheries in the state.
“In 2012, we started addressing bigger concerns, working with engineers, securing permits and funding to make repairs on a number of boat ramps that were severely damaged,” Frohlich said.
Two years later, work continues.
“We’re still dealing with repairs from the flood,” Frohlich said. “The two big projects are Kimball Bottoms, located south of Bismarck, which was destroyed, and a ramp near Williston.”
Devastation to boat ramps and facilities wasn’t limited to the Missouri River System, including lakes Sakakawea and Oahe, in 2011.
“In many areas in the state, parking lots, ramps, toilets and other facilities were totally inundated,” Frohlich said. “Access to many of our district lakes was cut off. Anglers couldn’t get within miles of some lakes because of flooding.”
Work on roads also continues today.
“Effects of the 2011 flooding will be felt for years to come,” Frohlich said.
From a boating access standpoint today, Frohlich said the state is in good shape.
At Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, which are approximately 10 feet lower than last year at this time, anglers shouldn’t have a problem finding public access points to launch a boat.
Frohlich said most of the main recreation areas will have a usable boat ramp and provide ample boating access. “Some of the main concrete ramps are out of the water, so anglers will have to use low-water ramps in those areas,” he said. “While these low-water ramps will certainly be sufficient to get boaters on and off the water, anglers may notice that some may not be as wide or quite as nice as the primary ramps and may be located some distance from the other amenities in the area.”
Many low-water ramps were installed through cooperative efforts during the previous drought, Frohlich said, and are now becoming usable once again as the water level approaches those same elevations.
At Lake Sakakawea, where fisheries biologists expect a banner open-water fishing season, all but two of the 34 recreation sites will have a usable ramp. Only Littlefield Bay and West Totten Trail will be unusable.
All 12 boat ramps will be usable on the Missouri River stretch from Garrison Dam to MacLean Bottoms. “These ramps are usually more reliable as they are not dependent on a lake elevation,” Frohlich said. “The biggest problem with these river ramps is the 2 foot degradation in the river bed that occurred during the 2011 flood, so there’s now 2 feet less water on each ramp with the same exact releases from the dam as there was pre-flood.”
Seven of eight recreation areas will have operational ramps on Lake Oahe from Hazelton to the South Dakota state line. Only the Fort Yates ramp will be unusable.
In the northeast portion of the state, Frohlich said the Devils Lake Basin had above average moisture and is expected to be up 2 feet this summer. “All nine boat ramps are in exceptional shape and will be fully functional,” he said.
A complete status report of Missouri River and Devils Lake boat ramps is on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.