RIVERDALE Fishermen have had some great experiences on Lake Sakakawea this summer.
A few years ago that would hardly have seemed possible. Following several years of low water and a sharp decline in fish populations, the huge body of water was a disappointment for fishermen.
All indications now are that the lake is rebounding nicely.
Submitted Photo - - Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors, hoists a 5-pound class walleye he estimated at 23 inches, caught earlier this month on Lake Sakakawea. This photo was shot at close range with a wide-angle lens.
Hungry and growing northern pike can be found throughout the reservoir. Walleyes are putting on weight too. Salmon are bigger. Perch are abundant and vast schools of baitfish are flourishing.
"Obviously there was a lot of doom and gloom in the past five years," said Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors. "Now, with more water, there's a brighter future. Year classes are coming. There's going to be some great, great fishing. It's already turned around. I think the fishing is a lot better than people realize."
When Mitchell goes fishing, fishing always seems to be better than what most fishermen realize. But this is different. Those who are making the effort and taking the time to learn the reservoir, or portions of it, are catching walleyes. No, success isn't coming as easily as it was a few years ago when virtually anyone who spent time on the water brought walleyes back to the dock. However, experiencing those days once again may not be too far away.
"Compare this to four years ago and, wow, there was just not a lot of positive news for any species," said Greg Power, N.D. Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief. "What we needed was water. The water came back and our productivity came back. The forage returned, especially the smelt. Our predator fish are first class. Their numbers are coming back, not bad now, but they are going to improve each year."
Gone are the anemic looking walleyes and skinny sauger of a few years ago. The fish that survived the low water years are fat and sassy now. Stocked fish are growing at a very fast rate. Natural reproduction the past two years ranks among the highest in the history of the reservoir. It all adds up to great news for Lake Sakakawea.
"We're coming back. The fish are recovering like they should after a long drought. Things are responding well," said Dave Fryda, N.D. Game and Fish fisheries biologist, Riverdale. "The fish population is a lot healthier and forage is good."
Fishing is better too, maybe not the greatest by Sakakawea standards, but much better than the lack of a bite that caused many fishermen to fish elsewhere the past few years. Mitchell said his recent trip to Sakakawea was an excellent one. He fished with Matt LeMoine of Bismarck on Aug. 9 and had no trouble recording plenty of action for an upcoming episode of Jason Mitchell Outdoors.
"We must have caught close to 15 fish in about three hours of fishing and the fish probably averaged close to 20 inches, so that is great walleye fishing," Mitchell said. "The fish were thick and broad and they fought hard. There's a lot to be excited about on Lake Sakakawea."
Sakakawea walleyes are increasing in size and numbers, thanks in part to record stocking efforts two years running. Even better, the natural reproduction of perch and northern pike has been nothing short of astonishing. With food in the lake as plentiful as anyone can remember, the fish are living the good life.
"Our netting shows the abundance of walleyes in Sakakawea is a lot more than what fishermen are catching," Power said. "Fishing tends to be tougher when there's a lot of forage."
Nevertheless, even when competing against an ample forage supply, fishermen are noticing that angling success has improved at Lake Sakakawea. Not every angler is doing well every time out, but enough fish are being caught to catch the attention of other fishermen. Clearly, a change is underway Perhaps the most visible evidence of an improved fishery is the re-emergence of a staggering number of northern pike. When conditions are right, pike can do magnificently well and conditions at Lake Sakakawea have been exceptional.
"Our world-class pike fishery is going to be back in a couple of years," Power said. "It takes a few years, but the growth is really good. Sakakawea has the potential for top-end pike and it will once again put out 20- and 30-pound fish.
"Pike like lots of anything and there's a lot of everything out there like suckers and redhorse," he added. "They have found utopia in terms of stuff to eat. Pike in that 10-pound range need big forage."
The northern pike are growing quickly. According to Power, the standard growth rate for northern pike is 10 to 13 inches in the first year. Field biologists report some pike growing as much as 22 inches in a single year. Power called that an exception, but said Sakakawea has the potential to grow pike 12 pounds or better in four or five years. During the drought years, Power said, the same aged pike would have a tough time weighing five pounds.
"Their growth rate has accelerated. The top end of the pike should get better for years to come," Power said. "Ice fishing opportunities will be around for years and darkhouse spearfishing should be very good too."
Some walleye fishermen fear that an abundant pike population will eat into walleye numbers and therefore diminish the chances of success for walleye anglers. Certainly fish do eat other fish. But many top walleye waters are also teeming with larger predators like pike or musky. In short, good conditions support good populations of fish.
"They can go hand in hand," Power said. "Pike eat walleye, and they eat other pike, absolutely. But there is over-reaction that pike control the rebound of walleyes, and they are not."
While pike, walleyes, sauger, perch, salmon and smallmouth bass are all doing better in Lake Saka-kawea, the fishing is destined to get better and the catches to become more impressive in the coming years. It is exactly the outcome fishermen and biologists were hoping for when water levels began to rise again in Lake Sakakawea.
Sakakawea isn't the only body of water in the state to shows signs of improved health due to the addition of more water. The recent wet trend has led to significant rises of water elsewhere in state lakes, making it an ideal time for an explosion of native pike populations. Lakes all across the state have been experiencing big increases in pike numbers.
"There are so many pike to be had here, statewide," Power said. "There are opportunities out there to have a blast."