By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.
This spring the COVID pandemic shut down businesses, shifted working conditions and locations and created new challenges for all.
That was certainly evident within the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s fisheries division, which after lengthy consideration and spur-of-the-moment innovation, moved ahead with, and successfully completed, spring fish spawning activities.
For instance, spawning and all other crews traveled separately, driving singly in work vehicles from offices to lakes. Fisheries crew members wore masks and were separated by Plexiglas while sitting on benches and working with fish.
Jerry Weigel, Game and Fish production/development section supervisor, said one built-in preventative measure is that the Department’s small fisheries work crews were well under the crowd guidelines.
“During a normal year we typically only have four to six staff on a spawning crew and even fewer for trap and relocation efforts,” Weigel said in an article written by editor Ron Wilson in the May issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine. “Shipping fish from the hatchery is conducted with three or fewer in a normal year. Those small groups give comfort that we can conduct many of our normal activities in a safe manner.”
Even so, some spring activities were cancelled until next year, including tagging chinook salmon smolts in Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, something the agency has done for 30-plus years. Also, the Department’s paddlefish tagging program near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers was put on hold.
Weigel said in the article that spring offers the only window to successfully net pike and walleye that are concentrated, and relieve them of their eggs.
“If you don’t have walleye production, then the 250 lakes or so that we plan on stocking this year wouldn’t get fish. Our stocking helps level out the valleys,” Weigel said.
In the short term, fisheries division chief Greg Power said, not stocking North Dakota’s waters may not seem like that big of a deal. “But in the long-term, many of the stocked lakes only have a few decent year-classes of fish, thus entirely missing one year of stocking may be noticed by anglers a couple years down the road.” Power said. “More importantly, totally missing a year-class of walleye complicates our fisheries manager’s goals of finding that right balance between predators (walleye) and prey (fathead minnows) so that anglers can catch fish. At times, it can be a fine line between too much and too little forage.
“We may not be as efficient under the circumstances as we normally would be, but we think we can do what needs to be done without causing any problems to our personnel or the public,” Power said.
Conversely, Power said Game and Fish cancelled the last two or three weeks of a creel survey on Devils Lake, as well as postponed a joint creel survey on the Red River with Minnesota.
“We didn’t think it was good for the creels clerks or anglers to be in close proximity, face to face during interviews,” Power said. “This is one of those prudent steps that needed to be taken during times like this.”