Maintaining Fish Populations in ND

February 1, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

The fishing fun never ends in North Dakota, where except for a few specific situations, the season never officially closes.

March 31, however, marked the expiration date of the 2005-06 fishing license, so starting April 1 a new fishing license is required. If you haven’t done so already, take a moment to log onto North Dakota Game and Fish Department website at, and purchase and then print your 2006-07 license.

Beyond the ease of license buying from the comfort of your own computer, online licensing provides a permanent record of your purchase, which comes in handy if you misplace or lose your original copy. You can simply log back on and print a new copy, at no extra charge.

After you purchase your license, you’ll need the latest rules and regulations, also available on the Game and Fish website, and in the 2006-08 fishing guide available at license vendors, county auditor and Game and Fish offices.

North Dakota has had year-round fishing for game fish since the early 1990s, but every once in awhile the Game and Fish Department gets questions about this. Greg Power, fisheries division chief, says that traditionally, fishing season was closed for 4-6 weeks in early spring with the intent to provide protection of breeding fish, especially walleye. However, even during that time the Missouri River System was open to fishing for walleye and northern pike.

Fisheries biologists determined there truly wasn’t any biological justification for the closure. So beginning in 1993, fishing became a year-round recreational activity statewide.

Initially, there was some opposition based primarily on the loss of a traditional early May opener. Some people just liked the tradition of waiting until May to wet a line.

However, that has mostly waned and in the past 13 years there haven’t been any documented problems of over-harvest for northern pike or walleye. That’s not to say there hasn’t been the occasional perception of over-harvest, but subsequent surveys didn’t confirm these perceptions, as catches of pike or walleye in April remains relatively low.

With a year round season, Power says, anglers can at least experience spring fishing opportunities on lakes and reservoirs across the state. This is especially true for northern pike as the spring bite is often the best time of year to experience a big pike at the end of a fishing line.

The Game and Fish Department establishes fishing regulations for a two-year period. For the next two years, the most significant regulation change anglers will notice are reduced limits for panfish – perch, crappie, bluegill, white bass and rock bass. The new limit is 20 per day and 80 in possession, down from 35 per day and 175 in possession.

Will reducing the limit save, maintain or enhance the fish population? If the specific body of water supports little or no natural reproduction and relies solely on stocking, limits are more social than biological. In that respect, however, lower limits may help spread out opportunity for other anglers to enjoy a limited resource.

The challenge is establishing a limit that keeps people interested in fishing but doesn’t promote so much harvest that the quality of the fishery declines over time.

The equation for a sustainable fishery, however, is not always as simple as setting angling limits.

Sometimes, fish populations decline regardless of fishing pressure, such as after winter or summer kills. Some people believe that liberal limits ensure that, especially in shallow prairie lakes, fish populations are used before Mother Nature inevitably takes them away.

However, no one has a crystal ball and can predict when conditions will return to the so-called “normal.”

Which brings up lake-specific limits. Just a few lakes in the state have a minimum size limit for certain fish species, and harvest limits are pretty much consistent except for a higher northern pike daily limit in three counties around Devils Lake area, and a lower catfish limit on the Red River.

 But there’s also place for special regulations when they will likely benefit the resource, or benefit anglers, without hurting the resource.

Again, is that guaranteed to maintain, improve or sustain a fishery? Not necessarily, but the likelihood of positive results is high enough to warrant a limited experiment. If successful, more North Dakotans may have a chance to catch bigger fish over a longer period of time. As with any experiment, you’re never quite certain what the results will be until you try.

So as the weather continues to warm, get your license, grab the new fishing regulation booklet and….go fish.


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