Low water worry
With low water levels on Lake Sakakawea and other lakes throughout North Dakota over the past few years, several people are concerned about the future of fishing in the state.
North Dakota Game and Fish fisheries Chief Greg Power said while the lower water levels are a concern, now isn't the time to panic.
"Sakakawea's fishery is always going to be there," Power said. "Even though the lake is way down, we've still got over 100,000 acres of water there...It's going to be right in the same range it's been in for the last four years."
A survey of the number of anglers in 2007 again showed positive results. Residents and nonresidents purchased more than 170,000 fishing permits in North Dakota.
After analyzing the results of the survey, the Game and Fish concluded that including children, about 200,000 people fished in the state's waters.
"Fishing continues to be popular for many North Dakotans, and anglers coming to fish from out-of-state remain strong," Power said.
An estimated 825,000 walleye are harvested from the Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake and the Missouri River/Lake Oahe fisheries annually, according to numbers provided by the Game and Fish.
Beyond these three major fisheries, the state has 270 smaller lakes, reservoirs and rivers that account for nearly 50 percent of the fishing activity in the state.
Unlike the "big three," Sakakawea, Devils Lake and the Missouri River/Lake Oahe fisheries, those fisheries are under pressure because of the current drought according to Power.
"Fisheries aren't usually an over-night thing, but you start losing a couple feet of water each year and it adds up," Power said. "The first ones to go are our marginal water bodies."
Power said the state's current water situation reminds him a lot of the late 80s and early 90s. A drought in the late 80s depleted several of the state's lakes and fishing numbers dropped.
"If you were to go back into the period of the early 90s we were only in the 110,000-120,000 (licenses) range," Power said. "We bottomed out in 1993 at 112,000."
Following that low number, the Game and Fish saw a steady increase in licenses purchased and since 1998 have remained in the 156,000-176,000 range.
Power attributes the rise to the development of new fisheries as a result of increased precipitation in the 90s.
"What happened in 93 is it started to rain," Power said. "We got tons of new water, new lakes...That drought in the late 80s, early 90s really put a hurt into us. We're actually in better shape now then we were back in the late 80s, early 90s because of all the water we had in the late 90s."
Weather cycles are just something the Game and Fish has learned to deal with Power said.
"We've got decent fish populations in a lot of lakes, we just need water, farmers need it, we all need it," Power said. "Living in the prairie you need to get used to booms and busts, that's how the cycle runs for sure...the glass is half full, there's a lot of upside here. We've been low before."
Lake Sakakawea currently stands at 1809 and the Core of Engineer's projections place it at 1815 following the snow pack melt from Montana. The historical average is 1837 in the summer.
Speaking to the possibility of a continuing drought, Power said there is a concern if the much needed precipitation doesn't arrive.
"Over the long haul it is a big deal," Power said. "You need water, if you don't have water; you don't have fish, if you don't have fish your not going to have fishermen."