BISMARCK, N.D. – Nonresident anglers propelled North Dakota to a third consecutive year of record sales of fishing licenses, and the state’s fisheries chief predicts favorable lake conditions will continue for at least the next three to five years.
More than 222,500 fishing licenses were sold during the 2014-15 season, up more than 3,100 over 2013-14, according to preliminary figures submitted by county auditors for the period from April 1 to March 31, said Greg Power, fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Sales of resident licenses fell slightly, but the number of nonresident licenses issued jumped by 5,000 to a new high mark of nearly 65,000 – double the number of nonresident licenses issued a decade ago, Power noted.
“The bigger picture is just that each year we’ve got more lakes on the landscape, and we’re managing more lakes and a record number of walleye are being stocked,” he said.
A lot of Minnesotans are coming to North Dakota to fish for walleye – particularly on Devils Lake – and a lot of Wisconsin residents are trying for perch in the winter, Power said. Many nonresident anglers consider North Dakota’s fishing regulations to be fairly liberal compared to the rules in their own state, and they also enjoy the seclusion the North Dakota’s lakes offer, he said.
At Ackerman Acres Resort and Lodging, which opened in 2007 on Devils Lake’s East Bay, Roberta Ackerman said last year was probably the best year for the resort and guide service she operates with her husband and daughter.
She credited word-of-mouth and media coverage about Devils Lake for an increase in bookings by fishermen from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as people from the Grand Forks and Fargo areas.
“The last two or three years, yeah, we’re pretty much booked solid,” she said.
Scott Gangl, leader of the department’s fisheries management section, said fishing in North Dakota is “as good as it’s ever been.”
“We’ve got more fishing waters than we’ve ever had, and those fishing waters are really, really productive right now,” he said.
Not counting the Missouri River system, the state manages about 420 fishing waters – more than double the 177 fishing waters it managed in 1992, the year before above-average rainfall began a wet cycle that has persisted for most of the 22 years since then.
The department has taken advantage of the newly created fishing holes with aggressive fish management, stocking more than 48 million walleye fingerlings in the past five years, in addition to salmon, trout, pike, bass and pan fish. This summer, it stocked a record number of walleye lakes, with 130 waters receiving a share of 9 million fingerlings.
Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake and the Missouri River/Lake Oahe remain the state’s top three fisheries, accounting for almost 50 percent of angling days on the state’s lakes, Power said.
Flooding in 2011 removed a lot of the forage from Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea, cutting into gamefish populations, but fishing was good on Lake Sakakawea this summer and it’s also returning on Lake Oahe, Gangl said. A large number of good fishing lakes east of Bismarck in prairie pothole counties such as Kidder, Logan and McIntosh also is driving the increase, he said.
“There’s somewhere in the state that’s going to be good fishing at any time of the year,” he said.
Minimal snow cover and relatively clear ice on North Dakota lakes led to low winterkill of fish, Power said, adding it “probably was the best ever.”
Population growth also continues to drive fishing license sales as new residents, many lured here by the state’s oil and gas industry, look for recreational opportunities, Gangl said.
“It seems like a lot of the people who call on the phone have a southern accent,” he said.
The department estimates that more than 201,000 anglers actively participated this past season, with ice fishing accounting for 25 percent of all fishing activity.
Power said he’s often asked how long the state’s fishing fortunes will last, but he doesn’t have a good answer.
“We keep thinking we’re peaking, but then next year we have five more lakes out there,” he said. “The majority of these lakes are going to be around for a decade, even in drought years. For at least the next three to five years, we’re in great shape. I think fishing’s going to remain an important part of the North Dakota landscape.”
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at email@example.com.