Fishing Remains Popular, Drought an Increasing Concern

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Despite North Dakota’s low water levels and ongoing drought concerns, fishing license statistics again show positive results.

In 2007, residents and nonresidents purchased more than 170,000 North Dakota fishing licenses, and including children, about 200,000 people fished state waters. More than one in four residents ages 16 or older bought a fishing license. The number of nonresidents coming to North Dakota dropped slightly, but remains relatively strong with Devils Lake the most popular destination.

“Fishing continues to be popular for many North Dakotans, and the number of anglers coming to fish from out-of-state remains strong,” said Greg Power, state Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief.

The three large fisheries in North Dakota – Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake and Missouri River/Lake Oahe – continue to lead the state in terms of participation, effort and fish harvest. On average, approximately 825,000 walleye are harvested annually from these three water bodies combined.

Despite the importance of the big fisheries, numerous smaller lakes and rivers also play a large role in fishing. North Dakota’s 270 small lakes, reservoirs and rivers account for nearly 50 percent of all fishing effort. “These fisheries are very important locally,” Power said. “In most cases, first time anglers are introduced to a smaller lake in their back yard and not the large fisheries. With good fishing opportunities scattered throughout the state, anglers shouldn’t have to travel far from home to find walleye, northern pike, large and smallmouth bass, catfish, trout or panfish.”

License sales have held at a high level since rebounding in the mid-1990s. Power attributes this to a decade of decent water levels across most of the state, some very good years of fish reproduction, and a strong stocking program.

However, of major concern is the growing affect the drought has as it spreads slowly eastward across the state. “With the exception of the extreme southeastern portion of the state, most lakes and reservoirs throughout North Dakota could use more water, and in some cases a lot of water,” Power said. “This is especially evident in the western third and south central portions of the state.”

Statewide, in the past few years at least 30 water bodies have lost their fisheries due to extremely low lake levels. In addition, even some of the larger systems, including Lakes Sakakawea, Oahe and Darling, have been impacted.

“Water is an absolute in supporting fishing opportunities, and though weather patterns will dictate when the impacts of the drought will subside, all efforts to conserve water are essential,” Power said.