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Learning at water’s edge

Walleye spawning at Parshall Bay

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Ben Oldenburg, Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, left, assists while Jason Lee, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, removes eggs from a walleye during a recent spawning operation at Parshall Bay on Lake Sakakawea.

PARSHALL – The holding tanks were full of healthy walleyes, brought in from over-night capture nets placed at various locations in Parshall Bay by North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists. With white-tipped tail fins splashing water, the walleyes were about to be artificially spawned and the fertilized eggs transported for hatching at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery.

This day was a bit different from others as a very attentive group of seventh grade students watched the process. They were from the ASB Innovation Academy at Williston, a new school that includes North Dakota Outdoors as an elective class. ASB is an acronym for American State Bank.

“We got them down here to observe the walleye spawn,” said Matt Liebel, life science teacher. “It’s a pretty fun class and they seem to enjoy it.”

Biologists carefully removed walleyes from a large holding tank on a Jon boat that returned from pulling trap nets, and placed them in tanks located on the Parshall Bay boat ramp. It was there that other fisheries biologists were carefully pushing the eggs of female walleyes into a large stainless steel bowl. Smaller male walleyes were used to fertilize the eggs prior to their transportation to be transported to the Garrison Dam Hatchery.

It’s a yearly effort by Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The egg take and artificial spawning is done to greatly increase the percentage of young fish that will be successfully produced. Later, the young walleyes will be released in several waters in North Dakota.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A seventh-grade class from Williston’s ASB Innovation Academy listens and watches as Dave Fryda, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, explains the procedures used during spring walleye spawning.

For young students witnessing the process, they got to see first-hand the impact a fisheries biologist can have on an environment.

“We’ve done lots of different things, from turkey calling to archery,” remarked Liebel. “We have a real good group of kids. They were excited to do this.”

For Liebel, who is an avid walleye angler and tournament fishermen, there was an excitement factor as well.

“Absolutely! This is the first time I’ve got to come and see this in person,” said Liebel. “It’s cool to see all these big fish.”

There was an abundance of six to eight pound walleyes brought to shore, and several that were much larger. The largest walleye, brought in a day later, weighed over 16 pounds.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Dave Fryda, NDG&F Missouri River System supervisor, responds to questions about the spring walleye spawn.

Dave Fryda, NDG&F Missouri River system supervisor, explained the spawning process to the students and answered several questions from them. He said he was pleased with the health of the walleyes but expressed some concern over dropping water levels on Lake Sakakawea.

“We might not have any smelt spawn this year. Doesn’t look good,” said Fryda.

Smelt spawn in very shallow water along shorelines and need stable or rising water for a successful egg hatch. Dropping water levels, even a few inches, leaves smelt eggs out of the water where they dry up and die. Smelt are the number one forage fish for walleye in Lake Sakakawea.

In most years Lake Sakakawea can be expected to rise in late spring to mid-summer as snowmelt runoff enters the system. This year though, with drought conditions prevalent over a wide range of the drainage, it appears that the usual rise of the reservoir will be minimal, if at all.

The latest projected annual runoff into the Missouri River Basin this year is 17.8 million acre feet, far less than the 32.2 maf projected in May of 2020 and well below the long-term average of 25.8 maf.

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