SEND Fishing Update: Zander Expand, Bluegill Boom?

By Nick Simonson

High waters in southeastern North Dakota from the fall of 2019 have receded some during this summer’s hot and dry conditions, but lakes remain in good fishing shape throughout the district, and the bite has been solid on many, according to BJ Kratz, Southeast District Fisheries Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F).  While most waters are down anywhere from nine to 18 inches in the region in comparison to last season, levels remain stable enough to prevent access concerns and fishery issues such as summerkill and dangerous blue-green algae blooms, with the latter possibly tied to lack of spring runoff brining in the usual nutrients that help spur its growth each summer.

“It’s probably good that we had those record-setting levels in ’18-’19 because that has given us some cushion right now,” Kratz relates of popular angling waters, adding that despite the heat, summerkill remains limited to stocked trout in Mooreton Pond near Wahpeton, which was not unexpected, “in terms of other lakes in the district we haven’t had any reports and haven’t really seen anything yet, but we’re not out of the woods yet, we still have some heat coming,” Kratz concludes.

Lake Alkali: Zander Expander

Kratz also confirmed this summer’s increasing angler reports of a growing zander population on Spiritwood Lake and its neighboring waterbody and overflow destination – Alkali Lake.  Particularly in the latter, four recent year-classes have been caught and sampled of the fish which was introduced to Spiritwood Lake in 1989 by the NDG&F.  Like a walleye with a bit of a purple tinge, vertical bars and lacking the tell-tale white tail tip, zander are native to Europe. After the one-time stocking of 180,000 fry and 1,050 fingerlings, under pressure from neighboring state agencies in the early days of ANS concerns, the project to introduce the fish was abandoned and populations all but disappeared by the early 2000s.  Recent high waters and migration into the adjacent Alkali Lake, where conditions may be better, have increased populations of the fish.

“This has probably been the most successful year in terms of angler reports of zander in Alkali Lake more so than Spiritwood, and there is definitely a pretty good population of zander in Alkali Lake, I know there are at least four age classes in there,” Kratz explains, with the biggest class being the 2018 fish now measuring around 18 inches, “they set up shop there a little better and that for whatever reason it has better habitat for zander, as they seem to be doing better there,” he suggests.

Zander, as in introduced species, doesn’t appear to create the same concern as other non-native fish and animals which impact angling opportunities, such as round gobies or zebra mussels.  Regardless, NDG&F is monitoring their populations and sampling year classes to keep a handle on them and, with the limited outflow between the two lakes, is working to keep zander in the Spiritwood-Alkali complex, with the decreasing water levels helping in that cause.

Ashtabula Walleye Dump Doesn’t Equal Recruitment

With the discovery of zebra mussels in Lake Ashtabula and the Sheyenne River system in 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hatchery located on the flow north of Valley City, was forced to re-direct its population of fingerling walleyes to those waters.  Instead of sending them out around the state and region in order to prevent any possible contamination by the invasive species’ microscopic veligers which may have been in the water, the young fish were transplanted from the rearing ponds into Lake Ashtabula.  Approximately 1.3 million juvenile walleyes were added to Lake Ashtabula, but unfortunately, that stocking has not shown dividends in NDG&F test nets thus far, and possible reasons abound, though bullheads are likely the cause behind the diminishing returns.

“Through the years, we’ve hit Ashtabula with different stocking rates, and we just don’t see a lot of bang for our buck there in terms of stocking,” Kratz explains, “we were kind of skeptical on if we’d see a bounce or not, and we didn’t, based on at least our reproduction survey last fall and then of course our standard adult survey we did in June this year,” he finishes.

The NDG&F will stock larger advanced walleye fingerlings in August, in hopes that more developed fish will evade the mouths of the lake’s bullhead population which serves as the primary predator for those inch-long standard fry that have been stocked in the lake in past seasons. 

Bluegills Booming

One notable species making a more frequent appearance on Lake Ashtabula, however, is a population of large bluegills.  Fish in the near-epic size range of 11-to-13-inches have been caught this summer, and angler reports of more bluegills in the lake have spurred an interest in angling for them.  While they have been in the system for decades, this noted increase in angler catch rate has yet to be explained, though sample sizes suggest populations remain stable.

“They’ve been in there for a long time, I don’t think there has been – at least in terms of water quality – anything that would favor bluegill reproduction any more than there was, say 20 years ago…it’s kind of a mystery,” Kratz states, “bluegills are a fish species that likes to cruise the shallows and they’re a lot more visible when you have water clarity where you can actually see them,” he continues, citing the increased clarity in the lake from the lack of spring runoff triggering correlation rather than causation of the apparent increase.

Fishing for smallmouth bass on Ashtabula remains strong, along with great opportunities for bronzebacks on Spiritwood Lake.  Jamestown Reservoir produced an excellent crappie bite earlier in the openwater season, and many of the smaller prairie lakes in the district stocked with walleyes and pike have continued to provide steady action for anglers, according to Kratz.

Featured Photo: Zander Handler. Dusty Nielsen of Valley City, ND with a zander caught earlier this month from Alkali Lake south of Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D.  Four year classes of the non-native fish originally stocked just one time in Spiritwood Lake in 1989 now inhabit the overflow water and are caught along with its population of walleyes. DEO Photo by Ben Simonson.

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