Make no mistake, there's more water on the landscape today in many areas of North Dakota than anyone can remember. Statistics confirm what observers suspect too.
In many locations, two or more sloughs, sometimes several more, have become so deep that they have overflowed to join each other and form a much larger body of water. Sloughs that a person could wade across a few years ago have become deep enough to stock with fish and survive a North Dakota winter.
Today the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is stocking and monitoring more lakes than at any other time in recorded history, 400 as compared to 188 in 1988. The number remained fewer than 200 as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s. The astounding increase is unprecedented.
An example of how high water has risen on area landscape is evident in this photograph looking south from N.D. Highway 23 near its intersection with U.S. Highway 83 south of Minot. Water had been overflowing N.D. 23 prior to the roadway being raised due to the rising water.
"It's not even a question that this is historical," said Greg Power, NDG&F Fisheries Division chief. "This stuff hasn't happened for thousands of years, since glaciation. Absolutely it is beyond recorded history. We know from seeing bank erosion along natural lakes, eating away at native prairie. The water has never been there."
More potential fisheries are being considered as the water continues to rise. For several years running Game and Fish added about 20 lakes a year to what they refer to as "managed water bodies." Power estimated about a dozen new lakes were added to the list this year.
"I can say this, we've added 40 new walleye lakes in the state in the last 15 years that totals 50,000 acres," said Power. "We got so many lakes. It is off the charts how good we have it in the state right now with both quantity and quality."
"What we have is a persistence of water on the countryside," said Allen Schlag, National Weather Service hydrologist, Bismarck. "Heavy rains over the course of years has filled up the aquifers and risen the ground water levels. Most of those aquifers, and they are numerous, are volumetrically enormous as compared to what you see above the ground."
An example of the influence of a rising aquifer is a previously little regarded body of water south of Benedict. What most would have called a big slough as recently as two years ago has a name becoming more familiar today - Lake Gerdie. Lake Gerdie has risen several feet the past few years, enough to flood the only farmstead adjacent to the lake. At the request of local residents, Game and Fish conducted an assessment of Lake Gerdie to determine if it was suitable for stocking fish.
"We stocked that one with northern pike two years ago. It's over 25 feet deep now," said Jason Lee, NDG&F fish biologist, Riverdale.
Test netting recently showed the average size of the pike in Lake Gerdie to be 12 inches, which is considered an excellent growth rate.
"There's tons of salamanders in there and those pike are eating those now," said Lee. "We stocked 20,000 pike in there in 2012 and another 23,000 this year."
If the pike continue to flourish in Lake Gerdie, they will attract an increasing amount of attention from fishermen. With early test results encouraging, Game and Fish will likely begin to explore the development of additional access points to insure the new fishery is easily available to the public.
"The city of Benedict owns a couple of acres on the north side of the lake," said Lee. "There might be room for a ramp and some parking in there."
About a mile to the west of Lake Gerdie, several rising potholes have merged to form another lake that has yet to be named. It too has a maximum depth of 25 feet and has undergone initial scrutiny by Game and Fish.
"It is a good candidate for walleye next spring," said Lee.
Lake Gerdie and the unnamed lake are examples of what has been occurring throughout much of the state.
South of Minot, just west of the intersection of U.S. Highway 83 and N.D. Highway 23, a series of sloughs has risen to the point where they are now over a mile long and perhaps a half-mile wide. N.D. 23 had to undergo a raise, complete with rip-rap, to stay above the rising water. The water has not been evaluated by Game and Fish, but is a vivid example of what is occurring during a wet cycle on the plains that has exceeded memories of even "old timers."
"Two-thirds of the state is experiencing this, especially north and east of the Missouri River," said Power. "The growth rate in these new lakes is extraordinary, much faster than normal. Our old standard was that it takes three years to get a walleye to 14 inches. Now they are 16 inches in 27 months."
A boost for Lake Darling bass
A stagnant population of smallmouth bass in Lake Darling received a boost earlier this year when 149 adult smallies were transplanted from Lake Audubon to Lake Darling. The fish were released into the lake at the end of June.
"It was done to help jumpstart them again," said Tom Pabian, Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge manager.
The state record smallmouth bass came from Lake Darling in 2007. However, catch rates and the size of smallmouth had diminished at Lake Darling in recent years. It is believed a winterkill played a significant role in reducing Lake Darling's smallmouth population to the point where natural reproduction had slowed significantly. Biologists hope that the introduction of additional adult smallmouth will lead to an increase in reproduction and thereby increase smallmouth numbers.
Muskellunge on the move
The chances of hooking into a muskellunge in North Dakota continue to increase, thanks to recent stocking efforts that added a few more of the challenging game fish to specific state waters. Lake Audubon, East Park Lake and Red Willow Lake received muskies recently.
"Lake Audubon got 7-inch Tigers," said Jerry Weigel, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Fisheries Production and Development Section leader, Bismarck.
Tiger muskies are a sterile hybrid, a cross between northern pike and pure muskies. They are considered to have a slightly more rapid growth rate than pure muskies but do not get quite as large or live as long as a pure strain. Nevertheless, they are a popular target for muskie fishermen wherever they swim. North Dakota's state record Tiger is 40 pounds.
The recent stocking of Tigers at Lake Audubon, about 7,750 fish averaging 7 inches in length, marks a continuation of stocking Tigers that began with 4,050 released there in 2010. Those Tigers were mostly in the 9- to 10-inch size. An additional 5,980 Tigers were stocked in Lake Audubon in 2011, 5,642 in 2012 and another 1,707 this past spring.
"What we really did is stock next spring's muskies this fall," said Weigel when asked about the two stockings of Tiger muskies into Lake Audubon this year.
"The reason why we are stocking Tigers in Audubon is to keep control. They don't reproduce," said Jason Lee, NDG&F fish biologist, Riverdale. "Audubon is a real popular walleye fishery. People love to go to Audubon and catch walleyes and we don't really want to compromise that."
According to Lee, another purpose for stocking Tigers in Lake Audubon was to introduce a species that will feed on ciscos which, within two years, become too large for walleyes to utilize as forage.
"An abundance of ciscos in Audubon will provide good forage for the muskies," said Lee.
The Tigers released this year came from a fish hatchery near Casper, Wyo., that had a surplus. In previous years the state acquired Tiger muskies from Pennsylvania. However, muskies there were discovered to have a disease that prohibits their export at this time.
A plan to raise a pure strain of muskellunge at the Valley City National Fish Hatchery this year was delayed but that did not prevent stocking of pure muskies into state waters. Red Willow Lake near Binford received 300 pure muskies. Another 1,575 were stocked into East Park Lake, one of the Garrison Diversion Unit canal lakes below Lake Audubon.
"They were a 5-inch average," said Weigel.
The pure muskies were obtained from a private fish producer in South Dakota.
Unlike Tigers, pure muskies have the ability to reproduce in the wild but there is no history of muskie spawning success in North Dakota.
"That door is pretty closed. We've never had any reproduction in the state and we've stocked muskies for decades in Spiritwood Lake, Lake LaMoure, Sweetwater. What you stock is what you get," said Weigel.
Red Willow Lake contains northern pike and muskie. One hundred fingerling pure muskies were stocked into Red Willow in 2010, another 300 young fingerlings this year. To protect growing muskies from being mistaken for northern pike, Red Willow has a minimum size restriction of 24 inches for pike. Additionally, Red Willow Lake is on the list of lakes closed to darkhouse spearfishing, as is Lake Audubon and the GDU canal lakes. The closure prevents the spearing of muskies, which can easily be confused with northern pike while in the water.
North Dakota Game and Fish regulations reflect the designation of muskies as a "trophy only" fish. The minimum harvest length of muskies is 48 inches. Any muskie shorter than 48 inches must be immediately released.
"It's a novel fish. It's a neat fish and something there is a demand for," said Rob Holm, Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery manager. "It targets a handful of anglers but it still is a neat thing to do."
A building at the Valley City hatchery was once devoted to muskie production in the early 1970s. However, the muskie-rearing program eventually was phased out. The hope for 2014 is to obtain pure strain muskie eggs and hatch them at the Valley City facility. As the fish develop they would feed on fathead minnows, which would also be raised at the hatchery.
"Muskies will remain very much a bonus fish," said Weigel. "We have such good northern pike fishing right now. Once every two or three years a 30- or 40-pound muskie is caught and creates a lot of excitement."