Starting in late May, the North Dakota 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 with fish—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,” said Jerry Weigel, Game and Fish production and development supervisor. “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, that wouldn’t be necessary in a perfect world.
But since North Dakota does not have nearly as many deep, natural fishing waters as its eastern neighbors, many current fishing opportunities exist only because of periodic stocking and record high water that has created new lakes. And there’s a pretty well-defined plan for creating those opportunities.
Stocking has a recipe, and it involves several factors, including water depth, chemistry and clarity, bottom structure, vegetation, available forage and other fish species present. Plans also take into account things such as spring runoff and past winterkill issues.
For lakes where Game and Fish is trying to establish a new fish population, the opportunity for public access also is 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 freshwater shrimp and fathead 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 usually is not necessary.
Natural factors such as dry conditions often limit 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 also is 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 manmade—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. This is the hectic time of year when it all comes together.
Anglers can find annual stocking information on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov, but unfortunately, it still will be a few years before most of the those stocked fish grow up to be keepers at the end of a line.