By Doug Leier

The late Dean Hildebrand was North Dakota Game and Fish Department director from 1996 through 2005 and he had a well-developed vocabulary of catch phrases and sayings.

One description I heard repeatedly for years was his exclamation that, "We're living in the good old days when it comes to hunting and fishing."

For the most part, that's still true five years later, though nothing in the outdoors stays exactly the same for very long. Consider that over the past several years North Dakota has experienced significant declines in its pheasant and deer populations, but over the same time waterfowl numbers are up and fishing prospects for the next several years are much more promising statewide than they were 10 years ago.

Those same snowy winters that have hurt our pheasant, deer and pronghorn populations the last three years have helped increase water levels to provide aquatic habitat needed to maintain and enhance our fisheries and fishing for years to come.

Don't believe me? Fifty years ago North Dakota had only 50 lakes and rivers listed in the annual fishing guide - and Devils Lake was not one of them. Also, another 18 water bodies were listed as closed to fishing ,and 13 had special seasons.

In 2011, we will have about 325 established fishing waters in the state, none of which are closed, and only a couple have special seasons. This is a jump of about 30 fishing waters from just a couple of years ago, and gives us more places to wet a line than ever before.

Obviously, the Missouri River System and lakes Sakakawea and Oahe will continue to lure anglers, and rightfully so. The same goes for Devils Lake, which is just two years removed from record natural walleye reproduction in 2009.

Unlike ducks or pheasants which grow to adult size the same year they are hatched, it takes a few years for a strong reproductive class of fish to reach "keeper" size and influence a fishery. The best part is, Devils Lake already has an excellent for fishery walleye, and an up and coming year-class will only make it better.

All the additional water that is filling North Dakota lakes provides increased habitat, but more water also can make it more difficult for anglers to find the fish, and doesn't necessarily mean that better fishing success will come immediately, but it will come.

Conversely, when fish are so hungry they'll bite bare hooks, there is likely a lack of natural food sources and a problematic food chain, which spells trouble for the long-term health of the fishery.

While walleye, pike and perch are the most popular species in North Dakota, anglers looking for a place to wet a line and land a fish should remember to check out the Game and Fish Department website at for waterways holding smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegills, crappies, trout, catfish, white bass and salmon.

Not every species in every water is at peak population, but it's the overall quantity of places to go that offer at least reasonable expectations for success that make today part of North Dakota's good old days for fishing.

As open water starts to appear and fishing begins to pick up, we should all heed Mr. Hildebrand's sage advice and enjoy them.

Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email:[email protected]