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Keeping the waterways full of fish

Photo Courtesy of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department Water quality issues, habitat, forage availability and other issues will be taken into account to determine how fishing and area waters can better meet the expectations and needs of anglers.

Since the late 1990s a number of North Dakota lakes have lost their fisheries because of declining water levels. Now, after near-record snows last winter and abundant rain this summer and fall, many of them are "topped off" again and have the potential to support fish.

This is part of the natural cycle of the prairies and we don't know whether next year will keep adding to the potential, or take water off with heat waves that evaporate the potential before it ever really gets started.

Last spring, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists jump-started many of these recharged lakes with stocked fish. But not all of them are ready. Several months from now they'll get another look when the ice goes off, to determine if it's yet worth the investment of time and money to try to rebuild the fishery.

In the meantime, Game and Fish biologists are concerned about the potential for well-meaning anglers to try to speed up the process by illegally dumping in a few fish on their own.

Living in North Dakota my entire life, I've been involved in a conversation or two when the fish are biting -- almost jumping into the bucket -- when someone suggests "why not take some fish from here, bring them with and just dump them into that slough and see what happens?"

It would be easy enough for me to simply state that such a practice is illegal -- kind of like a parent saying "because I said so," when questioned as to why one child can't put their sister's dolly in the microwave.

But I'd like explain a little more. Good-willed fish stockers need to understand the hazards of "bucket biology" and the examples can be downright scary. Who would like to be the first person to accidentally put carp into Devils Lake, transport spiny water fleas into the Missouri River system, or introduce a zebra mussel into North Dakota?

While some anglers might say what's the harm with dropping a few perch or walleye into a new waterway, I ask, where do you draw the line? In my college fisheries courses, I proudly earned a "C" in classes identifying minnow-sized fish. As an angler I would rather put my trust in the biologists who pushed the "A" category when determining what lakes should hold fish and what needs to be stocked.

Fisheries Division Chief Greg Power explains this phenomenon is nothing new, either. "In the early 1990s we were trying to increase public awareness about the problems of illegal baitfish. We had invested resources and money in eradicating rough fish in many lakes and at the same time stressed the need to understand the differences in baitfish and it helped."

Years later I do think the collective efforts are working. However, the problem has evolved away from illegal bait or rough fish and toward game fish. In some cases, even though the introduction was illegal, we can make the best of it and live with it, but most of the time it has caused us some real problems, compromising a fishery.

I know of countless requests in the past by anglers to have a favorite fishing hole stocked, and our fisheries biologists respond with integrity. They will look into the potential, but we also need to understand that not every lake or slough is capable of becoming a strong fishery.

Water quality issues, habitat, forage availability and other issues will be taken into account, and if criteria are met, the department has a strong history of working with local fishing enthusiasts and groups to determine how fishing and area waters can better meet the expectations and needs of anglers.

Even then, some stocked fisheries take off and thrive for a few years, only to face a future drought that dries up water and the fishery. It's the cycle of nature and in the coming year we'll find out if 2009 was just a temporary blip on the upside, or the start of another positive trend.

-- Leier is a NDGF biologist. E-mail him at