RIVERDALE - This year will be recorded as a very memorable one by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Game and Fish has set a new record for the most walleyes ever stocked in state waters in a single year, while the hatchery has likely broken its record for most walleyes ever produced from a single spawning season. The two agencies work in concert to maintain fish populations throughout the state.
The Garrison Hatchery has 64 outdoor ponds they use for fish production. Fish hatched in battery jars indoors are moved as tiny fry to the outdoor ponds. This year, walleye fry were stocked into all but two of the ponds, a pair used for sauger production. Fish fry in the ponds feed primarily on chironomids, a midge larvae. All of the ponds are lined with an artificial liner that has improved fish survival and growth.
"In an earthen-lined pond the chironomids tend to burrow down into the soil and there's more places to get away as compared to the lined ponds," explained Jerry Tishmack, hatchery biologist. "Because the chironomids can't burrow down into the mud, it is basically a feast for these fish."
A sample netting of pond reared walleyes affirmed Tishmack's claim. The young walleye were substantially larger than those of a similar age produced in the ponds in the years prior to the installation of the liners. Statistics kept by the hatchery also chart an increased growth rate.
Young walleyes raised in lined ponds at the Garrison Hatchery this year averaged 1,100 fish to the pound. As a comparison, says Tishmack, an earthen pond would produce much smaller fish at a rate of perhaps 1,800 to the pound. The result is bigger and more developed walleyes for release. Larger fish have an increased survival rate.
"You bet," said Jerry Weigel, NDG&F fisheries production and development. "Most states have to use fry, the smallest size to release. Survival of fry is inconsistent compared to the inch-and-a-half walleyes that we stock. We've learned not to waste stocking fry."
Weigel logs several thousand miles each year at the wheel of a fish transporting truck and trailer, taking fish from the hatchery and releasing them into waters throughout the state. This year has been an unusual one, not only for the high number of walleyes produced but for the late start to the spawning season due to one of the latest arrivals of spring in state history.
"Still, I would say, there is no lake in the state that hasn't had a request filled," said Weigel this past week. "Our original goal was shooting for 8 million walleyes stocked. We've got to be over that. I'm sure that we'll exceed the most walleyes ever stocked."
Some quick math revealed that more than 9 million walleyes had been stocked in the state as of Wednesday of last week. More were due to be removed from hatchery ponds in the latter part of the week. The total number of walleyes stocked is almost certain to surpass 10 million.
"Hopefully we'll be over that 10 million mark with 60 percent survival, 10 percent better than average," said Tishmack. "If it stays at 60 percent we'll be at 10.5 million walleyes. The record produced here is 10 million. I'm hoping to break that, which would be nice."
State walleye stocking received an unexpected boost when it was learned that Wyoming decided to reverse an earlier request for 1 million Garrison Hatchery walleyes. Wyoming and North Dakota often trade fish, with North Dakota primarily receiving trout. However, citing the late arriving spring and rapidly warming waters this summer, the 1 million walleyes designated for Wyoming will be released in North Dakota.
"Sakakawea was projected to receive 2.25 million walleyes," noted Weigel. "There's been 3.4 million stocked already. We put walleyes in a lot of lakes that really gained some water, particularly in Pierce County and McHenry County. Lake Darling got 550,000 walleyes last Monday. We've had big requests the last couple of years with new lakes starting to mature. Our walleye stocking has been unprecedented."
According to Weigel, now is a great time to go fishing because the wet cycle of recent years has brought life to many expanding prairie lakes. Unlike reservoirs that fill with sediment and where water levels tend to remain somewhat stable, natural lakes on the rise provide thousands of acres of new and viable habitat for fish.
"We've gotten several new lakes. It gives fishermen a different place to go and something else to try," said Weigel. "Reservoirs only produce so much. They don't necessarily produce fish like the new prairie ponds do."
Weigel encourages anglers to get on the water or find a shoreline and catch some fish.
"We're at a point where we're seeing the benefit and creating some phenomenal fisheries," said Weigel. "At one lake in Logan County, which used to be a hay meadow, there's now 40 to 60 trailer rigs parked. People are just beside themselves. That's good. Go catch them. We'll stock it. The lakes are so productive right now. It's a good time to be into fishing in North Dakota, without a doubt."
Weigel made a trip to South Dakota this past week to pick up a load of largemouth bass. While most North Dakota anglers target walleye, northern pike or perch, largemouth are one species that presents an alternative for some fishermen.
"We've been stocking other species all over the state," stated Weigel. "That's the trend with largemouths. We've stocked a million or so four or five years in a row. In some lakes they do good and are still doing good."
Approximately 15 years ago the Valley City National Fish Hatchery maintained a population of largemouth bass brood stock. However, it was learned through experience that largemouth simply wouldn't take in some lakes in which they were stocked. Now, with a known number of lakes that will support a population of largemouths, fingerlings are brought in from other states as requested.
Crappies and bluegill are often mentioned by anglers as a fish they would like to see in more waters in the state. Again, as Game and Fish has learned, not all species of fish will flourish in all waters.
"History has shown us what lakes will do well with certain fish," said Weigel. "An example is crappies in Pipestem Reservoir. We don't stock them in there but they continue to do well."
Bluegill are being raised this year at the Valley City Hatchery, something that hasn't been done for a few years. Like perch, biologists prefer to move adult brood fish to certain waters in the hope that they will begin a chain of natural reproduction.
"There's another thing too. We know to make big walleyes and big northerns, it takes more than fathead minnows to make that happen," explained Weigel. "That competition predator thing develops."
A program to raise a pure strain of muskellunge at the Valley City Hatchery was scheduled to get under way this summer. However, the program has been delayed by the late start to the season and, says Weigel, will be pushed back one year. The plan was to import muskie fingerlings and feed them on hatchery raised minnows until the fish reached 10-12 inches in length.
"As late as it is, we'll get some pure muskies for release into New Johns, the Canal Lakes and Red Willow Lake," said Weigel. "Those will be 10-inch pure muskies, a strain that we haven't stocked in the last 10 years. We're shooting for 2,000."
Tiger muskies, a cross between a pure muskellunge and northern pike, have been released into Lake Audubon the last four years. Those fish, approximately 10 inches at the time of release, originated in Pennsylvania.
"Muskies are an elite specialty fish that we won't have too many resources into," explained Weigel. "What we've seen over the years is that some lakes give up nice muskies. That's where we'll put them in the future. For instance, lakes that have shown to produce big northern pike, it doesn't pay to put muskies in that lake. There are already trophies in there."