North Dakota wildlife managers want to know more about the walleye in one of the Upper Midwest’s premier fisheries and also in one of the state’s prime prairie lakes.
Fisheries officials with the state Game and Fish Department recently finished tagging about 3,000 walleye in Lake Sakakawea and about 2,000 in Alkaline Lake in Kidder County.
The Sakakawea effort is the start of a four-year study that will look at fish movements, how many walleye are dying naturally, and how many and what size fish are being caught by anglers.
“Basically it gives us a snapshot of how anglers are using the resource,” said Dave Fryda, Game and Fish fisheries supervisor for the Missouri River system. “We’re just making sure we’re continuing to manage it properly, that (walleye) are not getting overharvested.”
The study at Alkaline Lake southeast of Dawson is one year only, but with a similar goal — to give fisheries managers a better idea of the proportion of the walleye population being caught by anglers.
“It’s one of the largest natural lakes in North Dakota, about 5,500 acres in size, and it has had a spectacular walleye population since about 2007,” said Paul Bailey, a district fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish.
“As such it gets quite a bit of attention from anglers,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’ve got the most appropriate regulations in place to ensure good fishing for years to come.”
Tagging involves putting a metal band on the jaw of a fish. Anglers who catch a tagged fish are asked to report it, along with information such as the tag number, when it was caught and how big it was. Game and Fish posts signs around lakes with tagged fish to alert anglers to a study. The signs include a QR code, which is a type of barcode that can be read by cellphones, that takes anglers directly to the tagged fish reporting page on the Game and Fish website.
Over-fishing of the resource is not a concern at either fishery. Alkaline Lake is large enough and deep enough so that winterkill isn’t a concern, and Game and Fish has stocked it with walleye annually since 2003.
“Fishing has been good there for sure,” Bailey said.
Lake Sakakawea draws an estimated 50,000 anglers each year, but over-harvest is “definitely not” a concern, Fryda said. That’s due in part to an abundant population of smelt, a favorite forage food of game fish like walleye, and a string of wet years in the Missouri River system.
“The smelt have been doing well; everything is doing well,” Fryda said. “Ultimately it comes back to we have good habitat conditions out there. You need water. We’ve had good water levels consistently now going on 10 years.
“Right now the fishery is in really good shape,” he said. “The walleye are exceptional, both size structure and abundance.”