DAKOTA REPORT: Big fish come from big waters

by Doug Leier

Courtesy of ND Game and Fish
Courtesy of ND Game and Fish


I spend the bulk of my fishing hours each year at the same mom-and-pop pond. The family and I enjoy fishing, in our own way. Just like you do.


Some may prefer the world-class fisheries of Devils Lake, Sakakawea or the Missouri River System.


Honestly from where I cast, competition is nonexistent in my view of fishing. I’ve had my favorite spot taken. I’ve been beaten to the ramp, dock and piers. I just move on.


I’ve returned home empty handed, but I’ll never let catching fishing equate to success in fishing. I know I’m in the minority, but I also spend a lot of time visiting with other anglers, and from the same small pond you’ll have anglers wondering about getting walleye, pike, perch and big ones, maybe bass, or trout.


It’s like a fishing buffet, with everyone wanting their own preferred catch from the same table, but in the aquatic world it doesn’t work. Can you find the best steak, lobster and biggest portions at the same restaurant? Likely not. And fisheries works a little in the same way.

When you talk about big fish, most come from the big waters.


In North Dakota over the past five years, anglers entered more than 100 northern pike weighing 20 pounds or more in the State Game and Fish Department’s Whopper Club.

More than 90 percent of them came from 12 large water bodies. In fact, Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River, Lake Audubon, Devils Lake and Pipestem Reservoir account for more than three-fourths of these Whoppers.


A similar trend also exists for walleye. More than 95 percent of the 490 Whoppers in the past five years came from big waters. Of the approximate 200 “smaller” water bodies statewide, only 10 have recorded a Whopper walleye, and only Spiritwood and Strawberry lakes have more than one Whopper during this time.


The common denominator is a food source for the fish to grow big. In the Missouri River System, rainbow smelt are major players in the condition and growth of predator species.


Yellow perch and white bass are likely candidates for growing the occasional large

walleye or pike in Devils Lake, while young crappie, perch and many rough fish are the forage backbone in most of the state’s midsized reservoirs and river systems.


Many of the smaller reservoirs and lakes are supported by fathead minnows. Although abundant in our smaller lakes, they grow to only 4-5 inches. Compare that to smelt that can reach 6 inches or longer and fill larger walleye stomachs on the Missouri River System.


When you take a step back and consider the aquatic habitat and biology of these fish and fisheries, the simple act of just stocking the desired fish isn’t going to create a whopper walleye or pike factory. So if you’re happy just wetting a line, any of the 400 or so managed fisheries in North Dakota are sure to put a smile on your face.


But if it’s big fish you want, statistics indicate some places provide better odds than others. Again, it’s kind of like getting a big steak or all-you-can-eat wontons. Odds are they won’t come from the same place, but you’ll have fun whichever one you try.


Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email:dleier@nd.gov

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