North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department this year completed one of its largest walleye stocking efforts in agency history, despite complications due to the recent discovery of invasive zebra mussels in Lake Ashtabula.
Valley City National Fish Hatchery gets its water from the lake behind Baldhill Dam on the Sheyenne River. Game and Fish decided not to use walleye fingerlings — young fish — produced at the hatchery to stock other lakes, to prevent the spread of zebra mussels into those lakes.
“This was done out of caution until more is known about the zebra mussels in Ashtabula,” said Jerry Weigel, fisheries production and development section leader for Game and Fish.
The agency turned to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery for all of the fingerlings it needed to stock walleyes in more than 140 lakes around the state. The hatchery produced more than 11.3 million fingerlings this year, besting the production record by nearly 1 million fish.
“We’re very fortunate to have two federal hatcheries” in the state, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for Game and Fish. “We’re very lucky to have that tool in the toolbox.”
Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake — North Dakota’s two premier fisheries — typically get fingerlings. Crews this year also focused on stocking dozens of lakes that suffered winterkill and on the 55 lakes around the state in which the walleye population is still getting established.
“The condition of the receiving waters could not have been better, with cool temperatures and a lot of newly flooded vegetation, which makes for excellent survival conditions for the one-and-a-quarter-inch fingerlings,” Weigel said.
Young fish from the Valley City hatchery were used to stock Lake Ashtabula and a lake in Iowa that is infested with zebra mussels, Power said.
The mollusks compete with native species, clog water intakes and can even sink docks and buoys with their weight. They’re also present in the Red River in eastern North Dakota.
Not using Valley City fingerlings for other North Dakota lakes was a “better safe than sorry” situation, Power said. Officials over the winter will be studying what might be done at Lake Ashtabula to ensure fish from the hatchery are safe.
“We have about nine months to see what can be done there to ensure we have clean walleye coming out of there,” Power said.
Game and Fish has stocked between 10 million and 12 million walleye annually for about half a dozen years straight -- what Power calls “quite a run.”
That’s good news for anglers, according to Weigel.
“The combination of an amazing walleye production effort and lots of water across the state bodes well for continued great walleye fishing in the future,” he said.