Stocking is much more than you might think


Editor's note: While this column can be viewed as the state of hatcheries and recreational fishing in North Dakota, it also may serve as a general summary that can be applied in part to many other states.

North Dakota has its share of variety for anglers. Catfishing on the Red River, paddlefishing on the Yellowstone and Missouri, walleye at Lake Sakakawea and perch at Devils Lake are among the more well-known adventures, but every locale seems to have a unique fishing hole that gives people value for their fishing-license dollar.

It might be an overgrown slough with a newly discovered panfish population or first-rate river fishing on some waterway NOT named Missouri. Throw in some old coal-mine ponds, small watershed dams, large reservoirs and assorted natural lakes and you have not only a variety of fish, but variety in types of fishing waters.

While this variety is good for anglers, it presents challenges for fisheries managers. One ongoing challenge is maintaining fish populations in lakes where natural reproduction is sporadic. Fortunately, the state has two active fish hatcheries that provide stock when needed.

North Dakota's variety of fishing waters is a function of what nature provided in the first place. The last glacier left the state with millions of acres of shallow wetlands, but only a few natural lakes that were deep enough to support fish over long periods of time.

Since the 1930s, many dams have been built, creating reservoirs large and small.

In an effort to provide fishing opportunities in as many places as possible, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists evaluate many new or renewed bodies of water for their potential to carry fish. Once stocked, some can maintain themselves, others need help.

Because of the hatcheries, the state is able to maintain many more fishing lakes than would otherwise be possible.

President Ulysses S. Grant established the first federal fish hatchery in 1872. At present, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 69 hatcheries in 35 states. Two are in North Dakota — one at Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, and one just north of Valley City.

I lived in Valley City for some time and never realized the hatchery's significance in providing fish for North Dakota waters. The Valley City hatchery has been around since 1940, providing perch, northern pike and, at times, walleye, muskie and bass for area waters.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a unique working relationship. While the hatcheries are under federal jurisdiction, the state is an active partner.

Biologists from both agencies take walleye and pike eggs each spring. After eggs are fertilized, incubated, hatched, and young fish grow up some at the hatchery, state workers transport the fish back into area waters.

In a perfect world, biologists would never have to stock fish in a lake. And some lakes, both natural and man-made, do maintain "wild" populations of certain fish species.

Fisheries managers also can do some things to promote natural reproduction in some waters, such as water-level management, creating artificial spawning habitat or protecting existing habitat.

But many North Dakota waters just don't have the right kind of habitat for some fish species to successfully spawn, even though the rest of their requirements are met. In those cases, periodic stocking is an adequate substitute.

Stocking is much more than just dumping small fish in body of water. Biologists evaluate each lake's environment to determine which types of fish might prosper and how many fingerlings to put in. For instance, lakes that wouldn't support walleye and perch might be well suited for largemouth bass and bluegill.

Whatever the ideal mix, the state is fortunate to have two hatcheries that help maintain fisheries where they might not otherwise exist. And anglers don't seem to mind much whether fish on the end of their line are stocked or naturally produced.

So each spring while you're chasing turkeys or working out the knots on last year's fishing line (remember, you were going to do that last winter), state and federal fisheries were braving cold temperatures and even colder water to ensure that some of your favorite fishing holes would produce fresh fillets a few years down the road.

Catching those fish, like always, is still your job.

Doug Leier is a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. He can be reached via email at dleier@state.nd.us.