By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.
Every year about this time, after the ice leaves North Dakota lakes and game fish like northern pike and walleye go through their annual effort to spawn, the Game and Fish Department fields a fair number of questions about the state’s year-round fishing season.
In my experience, the questions are typically from a curiosity angle rather than a criticism (though there are certainly a few critics), and are often based on the awareness that Minnesota closes its season for walleye and pike from late February to mid-May.
Not so well known is that regulations in South Dakota and Montana are much like North Dakota’s, where most waters are open to walleye, pike and bass fishing year-round, which allows anglers to catch and keep fish during the time before they have completed their spawning run.
My first response is that I’m thankful those anglers care about protecting fish populations for the short and long term. That’s a mutual concern shared with fisheries biologists, who thoroughly study the state’s fish population dynamics and angling pressure before recommending the continuation of the year-round season every two years when a new set of regulations is established.
North Dakota has had year-round fishing statewide since 1993. Prior to that, while the Missouri River System was still open year-round, the Game and Fish Department closed fishing for walleye, northern pike, bass and trout from mid-March to early May.
Since then, in North Dakota at least, studies have shown that year-round fishing has not been detrimental to walleye and pike populations, as fishing pressure is generally light on most waters the first few weeks after ice out.
Even on the Missouri River and at drainages that run into Devils Lake, where early spring fishing pressure is heavy at times, ongoing studies have shown that these waters still have more than enough walleyes to pull off a successful spawn when environmental conditions are favorable.
Outside of the Missouri River System and Devils Lake, walleye and pike do not naturally reproduce in many of North Dakota’s other lakes and reservoirs. Populations in these waters are maintained by stocking and as such there’s no need to protect fish during the spawning period.
Many anglers, too, have become accustomed to releasing large walleye and other game fish, not just during the prespawnperiod, but over the rest of the year as well.
The primary reason for year-round fishing is simply more opportunity for North Dakota anglers. Add up the extra six weeks or so each year and over time that’s a significant amount of fishing potential for those who enjoy early spring angling.
A year-round season also gives anglers a chance to pursue fish like pike in shallow waters closer to shore. Since 1993, perhaps millions of pike and walleye have been harvested by happy anglers while not negatively impacting our state fish populations.
The Game and Fish Department’s priority is to maintain high quality fisheries in North Dakota, while at the same time keeping fishing regulations as simple as possible. Adopting further regulations, or restricting opportunity, without benefiting the fishery or anglers, would not serve either of those purposes at the moment.
That doesn’t mean the current situation will last forever. Biologists will continue to monitor and study walleye and pike populations throughout the state. If conditions change on the Missouri River System, Devils Lake or key smaller waters, Game and Fish is committed to establishing new regulations if there is a reasonable likelihood of protecting the fishery for biological reasons, or enhancing fishing experiences.
For more background information on this topic, check out the article “Big Water Walleyes” in the February 2017 issue of North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine at the Game and Fish website, gf.nd.gov.