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North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea: ‘Overall, the fishery has probably never been in better shape’

By Associated Press

PARSHALL, N.D. — It happens every spring but, my oh my, it’s definitely not always like this.

North Dakota Game and Fish biologists have been conducting their annual spring walleye spawning operations on Lake Sakakawea in recent days and the results have been extremely good, maybe the best ever in the history of the state’s biggest body of water.

“Overall, the fishery has probably never been in better shape,” Dave Fryda, NDG&F Missouri River System fisheries supervisor, told the Minot Daily News. “There’s record abundance, good size structure and strong, young year classes. There’s lots of nice, big fish in good condition. Egg quality is good.”

Good egg quality is important. Fryda credits low water temperatures on Lake Sakakawea, still in the mid-40’s recently, as a main reason for good egg quality. Sometimes temperatures during the spawning season rise into the 60’s and 70’s and warm up lake water. Warmer water usually equates to less than ideal egg quality. It’s not something biologists can control. The walleye spawn is primarily driven by the amount of daylight, not water temperature.

The annual process of egg taking involves the setting out of capture nets which are pulled daily so that fish do not undergo undue stress. Walleyes are taken from the nets and then to a crew of biologists waiting on shore. There the male and female fish are separated and placed in holding tanks in preparation for artificial spawning.

Females that are ready to release their eggs do so with the careful help of biologists. The eggs are streamed into a bowl where they are fertilized by milt from male fish. The eggs then undergo a thorough cleaning by fresh water circulating through holding jars. After the cleaning process is complete the eggs are poured into coolers.

“Then they are transported to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. We hand them off to the Fish and Wildlife Service,” explained Fryda. “They do the hatching and rearing of the fish, stock them into their outdoor ponds and raise them to fingerling size. Game and Fish will come back and do the distributing throughout the state.”

According to Fryda, the goal this year is to raise over 10 million young walleye. It’s a big undertaking that will push the production capabilities of the Garrison Hatchery to the limit.

“We have a high demand across the state because we have a record number of walleye fisheries. The vast majority of them rely on annual stocking to maintain them so there is a high demand for fingerlings,” said Fryda.

All of the eggs sent to the hatchery this year will be taken from Lake Sakakawea walleyes. The artificial spawning process usually results in hatching success of 50% or better. In the wild hatching success is thought to be approximately 5%, even less depending upon conditions.

Many of the fingerlings raised from eggs taken from Lake Sakakawea walleyes will be returned to the reservoir later this summer. Stocking efforts have proven to be quite a success story. Lake Sakakawea’s walleye population is very high and fishermen have been enjoying the results.

“Last summer was exceptional fishing throughout the reservoir,” said Fryda. “The last three years our abundance of walleyes is higher than it has been since Garrison Dam went in and we have good size structure.”

Construction of Garrison Dam was completed in 1955.

Last summer a creel survey was conducted on Lake Sakakawea that revealed the average walleye caught by fishermen measured nearly 18 inches long. An 18 inch walleye weighs about two pounds.

“That’s off the charts for a creel survey,” remarked Fryda. “The average angler caught 3.3 fish per trip and there’s always some blanks. You’ve got to make up for that so the survey results were pretty impressive.”

Judging by the walleyes taken from nets this spring it looks like it will be another banner year for walleye fishing on Lake Sakakawea. The fish were fat and healthy with an abundance of fish in the four to five pound range. Biologists reported netting several walleyes exceeding 10 pounds, whopper fish by anyone’s standards.

With angler success running high Game and Fish determined it was an excellent time to start a four-year fish tagging project. Angler reporting of tagged fish will supply vital information for future management of the fishery.

“Tagging gives us an idea on mortality, exploitation and movements,” said Fryda. “We haven’t done a significant study in 12 or 13 years.”

The walleye tagging goal, which was obtained, was for three thousand fish to be tagged; one thousand in each of the eastern, central and western portions of the reservoir.

Northern pike are also being tagged this year, for the third consecutive year. Even though Lake Sakakawea pike numbers have declined slightly in the past few years, the sprawling reservoir still has good numbers of northern pike.

“There’s a lot of nice fish and the amount of big fish is there,” responded Fryda when asked about northern pike. “It looks like last year was a pretty good year class. We are seeing those little guys in the nets. This year might be another good year too because we got early high water. Overall our pike abundance is good.”

Biologists have not been tagging every pike that turns up in their nets, but rather targeting pike generally considered to be of trophy size, 40 inches or longer. Forty-inch pike tip the scale in the mid-teens or better. One of the largest pike captured, tagged and released by fisheries crews this spring was a post-spawn female that weighed over 27 pounds.

Late spring’s shallow multi-species fishing action

By Tony Peterson

If you want to have a great day on the water right now, get shallow, stay stealthy, and find some timber to work with different types of bait.

With the water temps struggling to stay above 50 degrees, we set out to find a shallow bay with some wood. There wasn’t a piece of greenery showing in the water yet, so we found few structure options.

Almost as soon as we idled in and tossed out our bait, we found perch. We caught almost all males, but the fact that they were there and biting was good enough for us. As the morning gave way to midday, the water temps climbed a few more degrees and the perch turned into crappies – good ones.

Among the slabs were a few sunfish, pale from having spent the winter in deep water. We also landed a few pike and lost a solid largemouth, all in just a few hours.

As the afternoon came and went so did most of the fish. This isn’t uncommon in the spring when the water temperatures can fluctuate quite a bit during just one sunny midday session. As we headed back to load the boat, I realized our best lesson was to get shallow with a variety of baits and work every piece of wooded structure well.

It was also clear that one pass on the good structure wasn’t enough because there were times where it seemed a new wave of fish had moved in when just an hour before they simply weren’t there. I don’t know if that’s the case or if they weren’t biting, but every pass was like a new opportunity to catch fish. Caveat: as long as we kept a low profile and didn’t make too much noise.

If you’re in the mood for some multi-species action, this is a good time of year to get shallow and be stealthy. We caught fish on waxworms, nightcrawlers, small leeches and, of course, minnows. But the key was to make fairly long casts and try not to disturb the fish holding on the limited cover.

That rule will hold true as the lilypads start popping and the fish have more vertical cover, but right now it’s a must. Bottom line is be patient, and if you’re not having luck early or late, get out there right in the middle of the day when the water temp is peaking. It’s not supposed to be as good at noon as 6 a.m., but the fish don’t know that.

Ten Easy Ways to Catch More Walleye this Spring


By Jason Mitchell

That late spring period is a coveted time for walleye anglers.  More specifically, the post spawn time frame often creates great windows of opportunity.  While each fishery can have a different personality and the nuances can vary, we have found some universal concepts that do seem to be applicable just about everywhere we fish.

Below are some hard-earned insights from our team that have not only narrowed our focus but also kept us on track.   We often joke with fishing that we can never say “never” or “always” as there is always an exception, but the follow list is something to consider.

The post spawn period is a coveted time for walleye anglers. Consider these ten pointers for catching more walleye this spring.

Use your temperature gauge to find pockets of warmer water. Learn to use side imaging when fish are in shallow water. The warmest water you can find will often hold walleyes early in the season.

1 – Watch your temperature gauge. Early in the season when water temperatures are still on the cool side, finding the warmer or warmest water often means finding fish.  Particularly during stable warming trends after the fish have spawned, we often find more fish using shallow water and the best shallow water is often the warmest.  You will find fish on other locations but the locations that have the warmest water almost always hold fish.

2 – Trust and Incorporate Side Imaging. Because fish can often be shallow or high in the water column early in the year (especially when the sun comes out), you won’t often see fish below the boat on traditional sonar.  Where you can see fish however is with side scan or side imaging.  I personally use a Lowrance HDS Carbon that I really like for showing fish.  If you are first learning how to interpret what is on the screen, move the boat at a faster speed than the speed you would typically fish so that you get a more defined picture.  An optimum speed is often around three miles per hour.  Fish will often look bright and look like a stretched-out piece of rice with a shadow next to the mark.  The shape of the fish can get distorted based on your speed and how the fish or boat is moving.

3 – Drink the Cool Aid. Colder water that hasn’t been mixed up by wind is often very clear.  On many fisheries, the water will stain up as it begins to warm.  You can often quickly identify the best areas by how the water looks.  You are not necessary looking for turbid or dirty water that has been churned up by wind but rather just a nice stain in the water that you can still see through.  A good color will resemble cool aid.  When the water really clears up, spend the time to look for that water with the stain.  That stained water will often coincide with water temperature.

4 – Be Patient in the Morning. What we see so often when the water temperatures really cool off at night is that it takes a little while for some spots to get going.  We so often find that we struggle to scratch a few fish in the morning, but the bite keeps getting better as the water temperatures warm through the day.  If I were to pick a prime-time day in and day out, early afternoon would be tops so don’t give up on good spots too early in the day.

Make a point to cast or pitch away from the boat and cover water by fan casting. Fish often push off the boat in shallow water and casting enables you to cover a lot more water.

5 – When to Follow the Wind.  Fishing the wind is so crucial on many fisheries.  Wind will distort light penetration, hide your presence and stack warm water into a location.  Heat combined with wind is often a sure bet combination that produces fish.

6 – When Not to Follow the Wind. Knowing when to avoid the wind can be just as important.  Excessive winds that start to muddy the water to a point where the water becomes extremely turbid can often be something to avoid.  When wind creates enough of a current to suck up colder water from deeper or more expansive sections of a lake and then pushes that colder water onto the location you are fishing, simply avoid it.  Wind is good until the water temperatures start to drop.  Therefore, the calm or protected locations can often fish better in extreme weather.

7 – Deep is an Option. Most of this list so far is geared towards active fish in shallow water but there are times when the shallows are devoid of life.  If the season feels really behind schedule or if you are dealing with the after effects of massive fronts that crashed water temperatures, fast forward to channels and deeper structure.  Most of the time, these locations can still be shoreline related but you will also see fish pile up onto deep offshore locations in the most extreme weather or conditions.  Remember as well that both shallow and deep are relative.  There are some fisheries where shallow is ten to fifteen feet while that would be considered deep on other bodies of water.  Each fishery will be unique.

: Jerk baits like the Salmo Rattling Sting compliment live bait. Find fish faster with suspending hard baits and soft plastics. Switch over to live bait when you wear out your welcome.

8 – Slow and Slower. We catch fish with a lot of different presentations early in the season, but we often find that we need to slow down to catch fish.  Not just the actual boat speed or lure speed but slowdown in how we fish where we catch more fish by being methodical.  You can miss fish so easily by simply working too fast.  You must find the fish and cover water but force yourself to slow down when everything feels right.  We often find that we start to catch fish when we slow down and catch even more when we slow down even more.  There are a few exceptions however.  If you are fishing sand grass and low-lying weeds and you keep bogging down in the vegetation with a jig for example, pick up your speed and lighten your jig so you can glide and hang above it.

9 – Cast More. There are still many areas where most of the walleye fishing is done by dragging jigs or rigs below or behind the boat.  That no doubt works and should remain in your tool box but make a point to fan cast more this spring.  You will be amazed how many days where you simply catch so many more fish.

10 – Two Punch. We often catch fish early in the season with soft plastics and jerk baits.  These artificial options can be worked a touch faster to cover more water.  When you wear out your welcome with the artificial options, come back through with live bait.  A jig with a soft plastic truly compliments a jig with a minnow.  Incorporate both into your arsenal and get confident with both.  This one, two, punch will elevate your game dramatically.

Watch Jason Mitchell Outdoors on Fox Sports North every Sunday at 9:00 am.  Find out more information at www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com

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