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  • North Dakota Wildlife Federation

Spring Brings Varied Fishing Conditions, Regulation Changes


It’s been said the only constant in this world is change, and with the shifting of the seasons, anglers prepare to make the transition from hardwater to running water in pursuit of walleyes, pike, and other popular spring targets in North Dakota. But along with those seasonal changes come the conditions which vary across the map headed into the new season and new regulations that apply to those opportunities as well.


Statewide Split

The winter of 2021-22 drew a line halfway down the state, splitting a cold and snowy eastern portion from a relatively dry western section. With the additional snow in the east came concerns regarding winterkill due to reduced oxygen levels in water bodies, especially those smaller slough-type lakes.


Meanwhile in the west, lower water levels headed into spring and limited runoff from minimal snowpack locally and in the mountains out west which fuel the Missouri River may create access issues as the season wears on, according to North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Fisheries Division Chief Greg Power.


“The crews across the state did our water quality checks in the dead of winter and we had maybe 10 to 12 lakes of some concern, but they’re extremely marginal lakes and [that’s] nothing new with them,” Power stated, adding that in the west, “access is going to be the bigger issue this summer - fishing access and boating access.”


Revamping Regulations

Changes to state regulations governing angling in North Dakota are also effective this spring as the new license year begins on Apr. 1, 2022, the date when all anglers will be required to purchase new licenses in order to fish the state’s waters. Two of the more significant changes in fishing rules are aimed at expanding angler opportunities in the state, the first of which being the expansion of smallmouth and largemouth bass (separately or combined) daily and possession limits from three to five, and from six to

ten, respectively. Based on abundant opportunities for anglers to pursue these species, and biological and creel data which shows most bass are caught and immediately released by anglers regardless of daily limits, the NDG&F expanded the limits statewide to match those which have been in place on Lake Sakakawea for the past two seasons.


“Two years ago we did go to this expanded limit of five fish daily on the big waters. We allowed it, we looked at the harvest, and it was exactly as we thought, there were no issues,” Power explains, adding, “our statistics show ninety-some percent of them are released…and we still have so many opportunities, it’s an untapped resource throughout the state.”


While not applicable for spring, the NDG&F also added walleyes on Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River and Lake Oahe as legal quarry for darkhouse spearfishing through the ice each season starting at ice-up in 2022. Previously, the only species legal to take with a spear in the state were northern pike and rough fish such as carp and buffalo. The addition of the state’s most popular gamefish likely will not impact their populations in any tangible manner, according to Power, and on those waters where the opportunity will be open, they’re hard to come by in those depths where spearing is an effective means of taking fish.


“We don’t have biological concerns, it may be more of a social deal for some. But law enforcement, game wardens, staff, our field biologists, everybody felt good about this additional opportunity. Anybody that does darkhouse spearfish knows that you don’t see many walleye, and the fact that we close the season on Mar. 15, the concern of a lot of prespawn, big females concentrated in an area, that goes away, because it’s plenty early yet,” Power explains.


Just More Opportunity

The angling year in North Dakota remains open for all species with limited exceptions in the state, where other jurisdictions in the region, such as Minnesota, close many of their gamefish seasons from late February into May. Studies by the NDG&F have shown that spring fishing on the state’s waters has a minimal impact on game fish populations, and fishing pressure is not significant enough to justify closure.


“The concern way, way back was that with the fish concentrating in the spring of the year there would be overharvest, and again, we never saw it and we still don’t see that. It’s just more opportunity, its an ease of regulations for people. That’s what fishing should be about, just go out and not have to worry about ‘this is closed, this is open, what you can and can’t do,’ and trying to make it as simple as possible,” Power concludes.


New North Dakota fishing and hunting licenses for 2022-23 can be purchased online at gf.nd.gov under the Buy and Apply tab.


By: Nick Simonson