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Fishing Opportunities Continue to Grow

Article By 
Greg Power
While the Missouri River System and Devils Lake receive the bulk of the annual fishing pressure in North Dakota, more and more managed waters are found on the landscape today, making it easier for many anglers to find a place to wet a line closer to home.

While reviewing back issues of North Dakota OUTDOORS, I discovered Game and Fish Department staff used a number of superlatives to describe bygone fishing opportunities in the state.

Twenty-five-plus years ago, while in the midst of a severe drought, Dale Henegar, the Department’s commissioner at the time, said “Our fisheries management program has created numerous opportunities that didn’t exist 50 years ago.”

In 1988 when Henegar made this statement, North Dakota only had 168 fishing lakes, yet there was a feeling of sufficient supply at the time.

The Game and Fish Department today manages 40 new walleye lakes, totaling 51,000 acres.

In 1997, then fisheries chief Terry Steinwand noted that the number of fishing lakes had grown to 275, and that fishing expectations were exceeded everywhere. And just four years ago, with the number of fishable waters jumping to 325, I stated that the good old days of fishing was now.


Obviously, when these statements were made, the general sense was that fishing opportunities in North Dakota couldn’t get much better. But they have.

The pendulum continues to move in only one direction. Just last year, the number of fishing lakes increased to 400 and we may be in the range of 420 in 2014. Not including the Missouri River System, today we have 348,000 acres of fishable water in North Dakota, compared to just 99,000 acres in 1989. If you’re counting, 250 more fishing lakes and 250,000 more acres of fishing waters today than 25 years ago.

Young-of-the-year yellow perch netted from a Logan County lake and later released by Game and Fish Department biologists. The perch were netted during fall reproduction survey work, which occurs on dozens of North Dakota waters across the state.

A refresher in how we got here goes as follows: Due to unprecedented wet conditions beginning in 1993, new fishing lakes (primarily filling old glacial lake basins in central and eastern North Dakota) were created via rainfall and snowmelt, filling sloughs and meadows. By the mid- to late 1990s, Department biologists termed these new, deeper, highly productive wetlands as “opportunistic lakes,” given that they were expected to be around only a short time. However, these opportunistic waters did not dry up, and many instead continued to grow in size, not for just a few years, but for a couple of decades.

With all these new water bodies provided by Mother Nature, the Department was quick to develop public fishing opportunities. Depending on size (both lake and watershed) and depth, yellow perch and/or northern pike were initially introduced into these new glacial lakes. Given the fact that these new introductions had lots of forage of all sorts and sizes, both perch and pike grew quickly to harvestable sizes. Anglers followed soon thereafter, flocking to these aquatic gems on the prairie to enjoy their production.


As many of these newer lakes continued to grow in both size and depth, fisheries biologists adjusted management objectives and introduced walleye into a number of the waters. This, too, met with great success as both survival and growth of these fish in new environments was generally very good. Currently, the Department manages approximately 40 new walleye lakes, totaling 51,000 acres.

Dry Lake in McIntosh County is the poster child of this new, glacial-lake occurrence. Prior to 1993, Dry Lake was just that, dry, and was known locally as a good deer hunting lowland area, with lots of cattails.

Game and Fish Department statistics show that 30 percent of the state’s residents fish, and walleye (top) continue to be the favorite fish among anglers...

Then rain and snow came, transforming the wetland into a 1,000-plus acre lake. By 1997 Dry Lake was producing generous numbers of 12-inch perch for anglers. Pike followed, and by the late 1990s, large northerns were common.

During the early 2000s, Dry Lake continued to grow, reaching nearly 3,800 acres. With more and deeper water, walleye were stocked and began bending fishing rods by 2003.


...Even so, anglers are encouraged to branch out and take advantage of the good fishing for northern pike (right) and other species.

Instead of Dry Lake going away over time, it has actually increased slightly in size and is now 23 feet deep. Dry Lake anglers continue to harvest good numbers of walleye, perch and pike, making it a destination for many to wet a line.

There are dozens of similar Dry Lake stories scattered across the state, lakes that didn’t exist 20 years ago, but today are collectively providing thousands of recreational fishing days annually. Over time it has become quite obvious that many of these new waters are no longer “opportunistic,” as they will remain on our landscape for many years, even when drought conditions return.


Providing a promising annual fishing outlook in North Dakota the past many years has not been difficult and is likely far easier than it was decades ago. Those who fish Lake Sakakawea should have another productive year. Of particular interest for some is a record population of channel catfish and the increasing number of trophy-sized northern pike. Walleye, sauger and smallmouth populations all remain strong and should provide plenty of action for anglers.

Downstream on the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, there may be a small rebound for walleye anglers compared to 2013. However, the rainbow smelt population is still recovering from the flood of 2011, thus the growth and survival of predator fish has not been good. Nonetheless, don’t overlook the big pike that also inhabit Oahe’s waters.

Devils Lake anglers will have another good year for pike, walleye and even perch. 2013 was a stellar year and based on population surveys by fisheries biologists, 2014 should offer more of the same.

In fall, Game and Fish Department fisheries biologists conduct fall reproduction surveys on all large and mid-sized reservoirs in the state, and many of the smaller waters as well, to better understand natural reproduction and stocking success.


While we understand the dramatic changes of the last quarter-century have produced tremendous fishing opportunities today, I often wonder what public fishing expectations will be 25 years down the road.

For those born in the 1980s or later, fishing has been nothing short of fantastic. Teenagers and young adults have experienced the best of the good old days and have not encountered the decades of little. This is analogous to many of our younger hunters who have also reaped 20-plus years of the bounty produced by the Conservation Reserve Program.

What will happen when the day comes when many of our lakes begin to dry up and fishing habitat is lost? Will residents continue to fish under lesser conditions, or simply move on to other recreational activities?

Despite these longer term concerns, the immediate prospects for fishing are bright. Fishing in North Dakota will continue its extreme popularity, where nearly 30 percent of our residents fish. Take advantage of the extended “boom” in fishing – hook up with a family member or friend and get out and wet a line.