GRAND FORKS -- Somewhere between Minnesota and Montana – without getting too specific – there’s a lake barely large enough to warrant more than a dot on a North Dakota highway map.
Its walleye population could be the stuff of which fishing dreams are made.
“It’s just a big slough – only 8 to 9 feet max – and you can almost walk on water in 6-pound walleyes in that lake,” said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
Getting them to bite, though, can be another story, Power says. Fattened up on a steady diet of fathead minnows, the walleyes are so well fed they rarely show interest in what anglers have to offer.
“Those fish just don’t bite – they’re just so full,” Power said. “There’s just so much forage, and that becomes – it’s not a management nightmare – but we have so many examples of lakes like that, and some pretty decent-sized lakes that went from 10 or 15 years of never producing a fishery to the angler, but you go out with our nets and see what’s there and you just can’t believe it.”
The fish might not always cooperate, but these are the good, old days for walleye fishing in North Dakota. Thanks to a wet cycle that has turned many sloughs into productive fisheries, anglers have never had more options for putting walleyes on the ice or in the boat.
Once limited to the big three – Devils Lake, Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea – along with a handful of smaller reservoirs, North Dakota anglers today have access to more walleye fishing opportunities than ever before.
Game and Fish in 2020 stocked a record 180 lakes across North Dakota with nearly 12 million walleye fingerlings, also a record. North Dakota today manages upwards of 400 lakes for fishing, whether pike, perch, walleyes, panfish or trout, compared with 150 or so a couple of decades ago.
“The new kid on the block really has become the walleye because our managers have kind of switched over to walleye management in a lot of these lakes,” Power said. “It’s incredible growth that we’re getting in these prairie sloughs, so there’s a lot of interest.
“For us, it’s never been better.”
Water drives trend
The trend is driven by abundant water, and even if last summer’s widespread dry conditions persist, the best is yet to come, Power predicts.
“Even if we enter a drought, I still think it will be another one to two years before we’ll be at our peak” for walleye fishing opportunities, Power said. “We just started really stocking a lot of these walleye lakes. They just need another year or two to grow to be catchable, but we’re getting 14-inch walleye now, in some cases, in just over two years.
“Historically, the North Dakota average is it takes a full three growing seasons for a walleye to get to 14 inches. But now, that’s in the past. These lakes are getting 10- to 12-inch walleye the first summer of growth in some of the extreme (cases).”
"“It doesn’t matter if you live in Oakes or Cooperstown. Wherever you live in a small town throughout the Prairie Pothole Region in North Dakota, chances are you’ve got a really, really good lake within 30 miles that has some of the best fishing in the state."
- Jason Mitchell
The 180 lakes Game and Fish stocked with walleyes in 2020 topped the previous record by nearly 30 lakes, according to Jerry Weigel, fisheries production and development supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck.
The timing coincided with record water across the state, the result of widespread heavy precipitation in the fall of 2019, Weigel said. While the lingering wet conditions last spring created challenges for stocking crews trying to navigate muddy or flooded roads, habitat conditions were ideal, he said, with ample flooded vegetation for young fish to hide and abundant forage.
“It’s a great time to fish for walleye,” Weigel said. “Statewide, there are a lot of opportunities and a good chance for success. This is especially true if you live in rural North Dakota, where a lot of varied fishing opportunities exist.”
Get out and explore
Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, a member of the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame and host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, has done a fair bit of exploring on the state’s small lakes in recent years.
“It’s some of the best fishing in the whole state, really,” Mitchell said. “Which is saying a lot when you have Sakakawea and Devils Lake in the state.”
For anglers looking to explore, Mitchell recommends checking out the Game and Fish Department’s website, which offers information on North Dakota’s fishing waters by region and county. Anglers can find everything from stocking reports and lake overviews, to contour maps and directions for reaching the lake.
“From there, you just go out and fish and explore,” he said. “Some lakes, you’ll strike out on. You’ll check some lakes and think, ‘Boy, it says there are walleyes in here but you can’t prove it by me.’
“That happens. And then there’s other places where you’re going to find some pretty magical things, too. There’s some tremendous fishing on some of these little lakes.”
Where to begin
As with any new lake, old shorelines now submerged and flooded timber are good starting points for searching out walleyes, Mitchell says; structure is the key.
“You can look on Google Earth and kind of see where the structure is on a lot of these lakes,” he said. “It’s just fishbowl lakes, where it’s flat as a pancake across the middle of the lake in most cases. In some ways, these slough lakes are kind of easy to figure out because you don’t have the amount of structure that you have on a lake in northern Minnesota or the Canadian Shield, for example.”
North Dakota’s fishing culture has evolved from a “pike-perch tandem,” Mitchell says, because many small lakes simply weren’t suited for walleyes before the onset of the wet cycle.
“You’re starting to see that shift, and some of these lakes have gotten so high that the water quality has improved enough where there’s actually natural (walleye) production,” Mitchell said. “And in some cases, there’s no natural reproduction, but the Game and Fish Department will just stock it every year or every three years just to get that population going.
“It’s almost like a ‘put-and-take’ thing, so it’s changed. The angling community has changed, and the management strategy in these lakes has definitely changed. It’s just kind of evolved with the times.”
The challenge is meeting the demand for walleyes, given the pressure the species’ popularity puts on North Dakota’s federal fish hatcheries, said Power, the Game and Fish Department’s fisheries chief. The Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery last year set a record, producing more than 8,400 pounds of 1- to 1½ -inch walleye fingerlings to meet North Dakota’s stocking needs.
The day is coming, Power said, when production capacity hits a wall.
“I think we’ll be there this year,” he said. “All that opportunity and new lakes, the requests from our biologists are extremely high for walleye fingerlings so I think we’ll be very challenged. Not getting the eggs – that hasn’t been a problem – it’s just hatchery production.
“That’s totally because we’re asking for so much.”
From an angler’s perspective, that’s a good thing.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in Oakes or Cooperstown,” Mitchell said. “Wherever you live in a small town throughout the Prairie Pothole Region in North Dakota, chances are you’ve got a really, really good lake within 30 miles that has some of the best fishing in the state.”
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