Doug Leier

Lake Sakakawea remains one of the best walleye waters

You often hear veteran anglers and biologists refer to the current status of North Dakota’s fisheries as “the good old days.”

Of course, that’s a general reference and each individual water is unique. Some are doing better than others and at the moment one of those “better” waters is Lake Sakakawea.

North Dakota Game and Fish biologist Dave Fryda assessed the size, structure and abundance of Lake Sakakawea’s walleye in a recent edition of the agency’s webcast, Outdoors Online. Here’ some excerpts:

Fryda: It has been several years we have been riding a high and it seems like a brokenrecord, but again, last summer we had another phenomenal year of fishing. Our walleye abundance the last 3 years has never been higher since Lake Sakakawea was formed. In our 60 years of collecting data, we have never had more walleyes. We also we have a good size structure. We have a distribution from small fish to a good abundance of larger fish too. So, it is a high population, but it is also well-balanced.

Is there a need for any restrictions on any of these fish?

Fryda: Not right now. We have never had better conditions, and we do hear that concern over harvesting too many big fish sometimes, and we looked at that last summer with the creel survey we had. We had very high usage and catch last summer … Our clerks measured just under 10,000 walleyes last year and 17 percent of those were over 20 inches out of the total harvest, where 70 percent of the harvest was 15- to 20-inch fish. If you would theoretically put on a one-over 20-inch minimum, it would have reduced the harvest by about 3 percent and that is with a good abundance of large fish out there. So anglers really are not harvesting big fish in a larger proportion than what they are out there. In fact, the proportion of fish harvested over 20 inches by anglers is actually smaller than what is out there.  And our total mortality that we monitor every year is low on Sakakawea.

How is reproduction on the big lake?

Fryda: It has been very good since about 2011. Starting in ‘11 we have had pretty consistent good year-classes … 2012 was about the only poor year-class we have had since then so that is what is playing into this increasing abundance and a good-sized structure because we are 8 years into this good consistent recruitment.

Explain the stocking philosophy

Fryda: Stocking is a tool and at the right times we stock when conditions are warranted. Stocking is particularly important in the lower end of the reservoir where we do not see natural reproduction.

How is the forage and smelt population in Lake Sakakawea?

It remains good. We are still riding a high abundance of all forage, essentially. So the fish are, and obviously the anglers are seeing, that the fish are in good condition.

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Doug Leier

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at

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