Starting in late May, the State Game and Fish Department’s aerated fish stocking trailers are on the road almost nonstop for several weeks, delivering the year’s crop of hatchery raised northern pike and walleye fingerlings to lakes and rivers around North Dakota.
First will come northern pike, followed a couple of weeks later by walleye, with other species mixed in.
It’s an almost overwhelming assignment, considering the state has roughly twice as many lakes that hold fish populations, and twice as many lakes on the stocking list, as it did 20 years ago.
“We now manage about 420 waters and 391,000 acres, excluding the Missouri River System,” Jerry Weigel, Game and Fish production and development supervisor said. “In the last five years alone we have stocked more than 48 million walleye fingerlings in the state, in addition to salmon, trout, pike, bass and panfish.”
This year, about 152 waters are scheduled to receive walleye fingerlings and another 44 or so will get northern pike.
While the Game and Fish Department, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates two federal fish hatcheries in North Dakota has the capability to stock millions of fish in the state, in a perfect world that wouldn’t be necessary.
However, since North Dakota does not have nearly the number of deep, natural fishing waters as its eastern neighbors, many current fishing opportunities exist only because of periodic stocking and record high water (new lakes). And there’s a pretty well-defined plan for accomplishing this.
Stocking has a recipe and it involves several factors, including water depth, chemistry and clarity, bottom structure, vegetation, available forage, other fish species present, etc. Plans also take into account things like spring run-off and past winterkill issues.
For lakes where Game and Fish is trying to establish a new fish population, the opportunity for public access is also a major factor.
In natural lakes and rivers, certain kinds of fish have been present for ages. They have evolved so they can reproduce within the type of habitat the water provides and have adapted to certain food sources.
Most of these new waters are full of food such as fresh water shrimp and fat head minnows. All that’s needed is public access and some hatchery fingerlings to get things started.
Reservoirs or lakes created when rivers or creeks are impounded may provide livable water for fish, but they may not have the type of spawning habitat that allows certain kinds of fish to reproduce. In those cases, stocking is warranted to maintain the fishery.
In waters where natural reproduction occurs on a consistent basis, stocking is usually not necessary.
However, natural factors such as dry conditions often limit natural reproduction, particularly in reservoirs where water levels can change more dramatically than in natural waters. What might be good spawning habitat one year could be several feet from the water’s edge the following year.
On the other hand, high water levels can stimulate a fishery. Flooded vegetation is ideal spawning habitat for northern pike and yellow perch and is also a hideout for small fish of other desirable species such as walleyes or bass. In the past decade, we’ve seen this high-water phenomenon influence dozens of lakes — both natural and man-made — across the state.
The bottom line is, fish stocking is not always needed, but some North Dakota lakes would have limited or no fish populations without the Game and Fish Department’s comprehensive stocking program. And right now is that sort of frenzied time of year when it all comes together.
When it’s all said and done, you can find annual stocking information on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov, but unfortunately, it will still be a few years down the road before most of the those stocked fish grow up to be keepers at the end of a line.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department.