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When Yesterday Becomes Today

Article By 
Greg Power

Typically, the view through a crystal ball is not obvious when making long-term predictions. However, in the case of forecasting fishing opportunities in North Dakota for 2013, the view is pretty clear, with a favorable outlook for anglers.

Although a few water bodies may have slower fishing than what many have experienced in recent years, most anglers should have another good to excellent year in 2013.

Why such optimism? Well, we need to first look back to understand what to expect in the future. 

For so many events in life, there’s usually a lag between actions and consequences. Parents heavily invest their time into their children in hopes that as young adults they make mature decisions. Society participates in educating our youth, anticipating someday they will become civic leaders, entrepreneurs and so on. This cause and effect dynamic is also true for today’s fishing opportunities.

Article Lead Photo

Fishing-related events and actions that occurred in the past are often observed today in both opportunity and success. To that end, I’d like to share a short list of management decisions/actions made by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department that are contributing to today’s good fishing.

However, before sharing these dozen or so success stories, it is imperative to recognize that Mother Nature has been extremely kind to both fish and angler in the past 20 years. Most notably, the unprecedented wet conditions between 1993 and 2011 that resulted in today’s record number of 400 or so managed water bodies. That’s more than double the number of managed waters North Dakota had in the late 1980s. Runoff has filled sloughs and meadows, creating phenomenal new fisheries through much of central and eastern North Dakota.

Regardless of all the new water on the landscape, anglers fishing North Dakota’s waters also benefit from past management decisions, actions, and in some cases, nonaction. Whether someone caught a 10-pound walleye from Lake Sakakawea in the mid-1980s, a 2-pound yellow perch from Devils Lake in 2012, a rainbow trout anywhere in North Dakota, a chinook salmon from Garrison Dam Tailrace, a walleye from any of the state’s nearly 150 walleye lakes, or simply went fishing in their boat on one of 265 lakes with public ramps, a number of past landmark events helped shape these opportunities. Looking through the rearview mirror, these activities, some dating back 40-plus years, are briefly highlighted:

Despite being the largest water body in the state, forage was sorely lacking in Lake Sakakawea after it filled in the 1960s. The introduction of rainbow smelt in 1972 ultimately provided a strong forage base and is/was responsible for the large predator fish (walleye, northern pike and chinook salmon) in the Missouri River System. 

In 1986, a new coldwater production facility was completed at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, enabling the Game and Fish Department to annually stock quality-sized chinook salmon into Lake Sakakawea and Garrison Tailrace. Further, the coldwater building annually produces up to 80,000 catchable-sized trout, mainly rainbows, that are stocked annually into approximately 50 waters statewide, including the Tailrace. 

During the early to mid-1980s, the Department evaluated a walleye fingerling stocking approach that proved successful for Lake Sakakawea. This information helped support the need for additional rearing ponds, and eventually walleye stocking strategies were applied successfully for all of the state’s water bodies, including Sakakawea and Devils Lake.

With an obvious need to supplement Lake Sakakawea’s walleye population, and an ongoing call to stock more fingerlings into district lakes, the number of rearing ponds at Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery was expanded from 24 to 64 in 1989. Since then, North Dakota has led the nation most years in stocking walleye and northern pike fingerlings. Both pond expansion and the coldwater facility would not have been possible without the unique and strong partnership between the Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  In 1986, with an influx of more Sport Fish Restoration funds, the Department cost-shared for the first poured concrete boat ramp in the state and subsequently has been able to adequately fund a development program that meets the state’s public boating infrastructure needs. Ramps, docks, toilets, roads and fish cleaning stations are now part of the normal routine.

Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery

Since the number of rearing ponds at Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery was expanded in the late 1980s, North Dakota has led the nation most years in stocking northern pike and walleye fingerlings.


An unglamorous, but critically important initiative was tackled beginning in the early 1990s, addressing bait bucket transfer of unwanted fish throughout the state. An information/education campaign highlighted a pressing need to eliminate possession and transfer of illegal baits, and involved anglers as well as wholesale and retail bait vendors. Paralleling this increase in public awareness of illegal baits, rough fish were eliminated from dozens of North Dakota waters, which were then restocked with game fish. More than 20 years later, most of these water bodies remain clean of rough fish and provide good recreational fishing opportunities.  

Today, Devils Lake and yellow perch fishing are synonymous, but it wasn’t always that way. The introduction of adult yellow perch in Devils Lake in the early 1970s has provided countless hours of fishing recreation. In addition, an aggressive statewide adult yellow perch trap and transport program spearheaded by Department fisheries biologists, especially from the late 1990s to now, have produced dozens of ice fishing destinations that were once void of fish. In 2010, for example, Department staff stocked approximately 50 perchless lakes with 400,000 adult perch that spawned and produced young.

An intense introduction effort, peaking in the 1990s, established smallmouth bass populations in many water bodies throughout the state. After initial stockings, most of these smallmouth populations are now self-sustaining and provide excellent, alternative fishing prospects.

Recreational fishing opportunities have increased substantially since the mid-1970s, when some traditional fishing regulations were relaxed. For instance, year-round fishing was first allowed on the Missouri River System in 1975, and then statewide in 1993. Another example is the allowance of up to four lines for ice fishing, which became legal in 1996. And most recently, the northern pike limit was increased from three to five daily. This attentive liberalization increased fishing interest and opportunity, while the needed measures to protect the respective fisheries were not compromised.  

Another regulation matter involves the Game and Fish Department’s ability to maintain “biology” as the basic foundation in the formulation of regulations. The Department uses the best available science for establishing fishing regulations, and has not overreacted to public demand for further regulations when/where they would ultimately prove ineffective.

Members of the Game and Fish Department’s fisheries division, which is one of the smallest in the nation, net an urban creek in Bismarck for chinook salmon in 2011.

Netting chinook in urban creek in Bismarck

Lastly, the Department’s fisheries division is one of the smallest in the nation, but a new generation of staff biologists and technicians continue a longstanding work ethic, strong commitment and unyielding perseverance. The job of a field biologist is often not easy, but collective knowledge grounded on real-life work experiences leads to decision-making that truly best serves North Dakota anglers.

Fisheries biologists, especially on the prairies, need to be humble as Mother Nature plays the largest role – often giving (wet periods) and often taking away (droughts). Also, because our fishing lakes are generally at the bottom of watersheds, managers must also deal with challenging chemical and biological complexities within the water bodies due to nutrient loading and sedimentation.

Yet, despite often having our hands tied, management decisions and practices over the long run have influenced today’s great fishing on North Dakota’s prairie.