By Doug Leier

Looking ahead to 2015, it's hard not to get excited, or stay excited, about the excellent fishing prospects that lie ahead for North Dakota.

150107 good fishing

None of us who are anglers today have ever lived through a time when the state has had more fishing waters than it does right now.​

None of us who are anglers today have ever lived through a time when the state has had more fishing waters than it does right now. Many of these waters have developed quality fisheries over the past several years, and may not even have reached their peak just yet.

People are already noticing, too. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department issued a record number of fishing licenses over the 2013-14 licensing year, and it's likely that number will go even higher for the 2014-15 licensing year that ends March 31.

Of course, as bright as the year ahead looks for fishing, significant challenges remain; the low numbers deer and pheasants aren't going away. Of immediate concern is the winter, which so far isn't bad. November was much colder than average, but things moderated in December and as of the first of the year, much of the state had little or no snow.

A lot of winter remains, but to this point you could describe it as generally "wildlife friendly." But even if the entire winter is generally moderate, that's still not nearly enough to allow pheasant and deer numbers to rebuild all at once.

It took 20 years of the Conservation Reserve Program, and a string of relatively mild winters to grow pheasant numbers in North Dakota to a point where the annual harvest approached 1 million roosters in 2007. Compare that to the five years prior to the first CRP contract in North Dakota - in the early 1980s - when the average pheasant harvest was less than 130,000 birds.

In an optimistic "glass-half-full" sort of way, we could look at the 2014 situation, with 1.6 million acres of CRP still on the landscape, as a good starting point. Certainly, that's a bit less than half the CRP that existed in 2007, but it's a lot more than the zero acres in the CRP that we had in 1984.

While the generation of hunters who enjoyed the bounties at the peak of the CRP may not see that same level again, compared to 1984, pheasant numbers still look in pretty good shape. The challenge in 2015, for Game and Fish and all of us who enjoy hunting, is now to maintain what we have, while working toward long-term improvements that get our resident wildlife populations headed back in the right direction.

At the same time, we can look for some bright spots. Like fishing, waterfowl hunting is at a high point now. All goose populations are at high levels, as are most duck species.

At the moment, abundant water on the landscape is sort of buffering the reduction in CRP and other grassland duck nesting habitat. We expect changes in waterfowl populations based on annual water conditions, but reduced nesting habitat will mean the peaks won't be as high, and the valleys will be lower than they would have been 10 years ago.

If you live in North Dakota in 2015 you'll also have an opportunity to snag paddlefish, catch a catfish, walk the woods for ruffed grouse or the prairies for sharptails, trap a fisher, go mountain lion hunting, or apply for an elk, moose or bighorn sheep license. All of this, plus, and I reaffirm, we still have pheasants and deer.

Look around and you're sure to find many other reasons to look optimistically ahead as well.