This year was one of the shortest walleye spawning seasons ever for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. The annual harvest of walleyes for the purpose of taking eggs resulted in unusually large catches of fish ready to deliver.
"It was one of our shortest spawning seasons ever," said Dave Fryda, NDG&F Missouri River system fisheries supervisor. "I think Friday was the largest take we've ever done on Sakakawea."
Fryda was referring to Friday, May 2. Fisheries crews worked walleyes the following Saturday and Sunday too, capturing enough fish to fill 390 quarts with walleye eggs. A quart contains an estimated 120,000 eggs, meaning the total delivered to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery was more than 46 million.
Fishermen pursuing walleyes on Lake Sakakawea this year should find fish to be of excellent average size. Biologists got a look at Lake Sakakawea walleyes during recent spawning operations.
"We've got 65 million walleye eggs in battery jars," said Jerry Tishmack, Garrison Hatchery.
The additional eggs came from a similar spawning operation at Devils Lake, where the spawn is several days behind Lake Sakakawea. More eggs are expected to be harvested from Devils Lake walleyes later this week.
Game and Fish set a goal of raising 11 million walleye fingerlings this year destined for state waters. A portion of those fish will be reared at the Valley City National Fish Hatchery. Even though not all harvested walleye eggs will hatch, this year's take should be more than enough to meet the state's request.
"We'll probably see 15.5 million walleye fry get stocked into our outdoor ponds," said Tishmack. "About 60 percent of those should make it, over 9 million."
In addition to supplying eggs for the hatchery, the annual take on Lake Sakakawea gives biologists a snapshot of how the fish are faring. According to Fryda, he likes what he has observed so far this spring.
"Things are good. Water levels are good. It should be a good spawning season and the fish are in good condition," said Fryda.
A good number of 2010 male walleyes showed up in the catch nets this year, typically 14- to 16-inch fish. Males show up at spawning sites at an earlier age than the females.
"We also had a lot of fish pushing that 17- to 18-inch range," said Fryda. "The females had very good average size, averaging over 5 pounds. They were in very good condition and in good numbers."
Fishermen are hoping that more and bigger fish on the spawning grounds will equate to better fishing this summer, but that may not necessarily be the case. Fryda says that when water levels are high in Lake Sakakawea it can make for a challenging fishing season.
"It tends to be a tougher bite for a year or two," said Fryda. "When all that vegetation goes under it makes it tougher to fish."
Nevertheless, fishermen can take comfort in knowing that the walleyes are doing well and that there are good numbers of them in Sakakawea. Other species are doing well too, said Fryda.
"There's lots of pike. No shortage of those and they are getting bigger," said Fryda. "They are all over the board from 3 to 20 pounds with a lot of those 8- to 12-pounders. Oahe had even bigger pike. Those were huge. There's plenty of catfish in the lake, no doubt about that. Our adult summer survey shows their numbers have never been higher."
Although the catfish in Lake Sakakawea are channel catfish, the same as those found in the Red River, they do not grow as big as the Red River fish. Red River cats are often 15-20 pounds. Not so in Lake Sakakawea.
"There's lots of 2- to 3-pounders. Big cats in Sakakawea are rare," said Fryda. "They don't get very big. Five pounds is a big cat."
Walleye eggs at the Garrison Hatchery are being kept in cool water to slow down the hatching process. The delay should allow for completion of a water intake being installed at the area that was formerly the Spillway Pond. The embankment forming the southern edge of the pond was washed away during high water in 2011 and has not been replaced. The new intake will allow water to be pumped to outdoor holding ponds. According to Tishmack, the first walleye eggs should begin hatching about May 21.