Fishing preview a mixed bag on Missouri River

Bismarck, N.D. (AP) – There is some good news and some bad news for anglers on the Missouri River system this season.

The good news is the fishing on Lake Sakakawea should be as good it's been in recent memory.

The bad news? The Missouri River and Lake Oahe will be iffy, at best.

Dave Fryda, Missouri River system fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said Lake Sakakawea is in great shape for walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass and a number of other species.

"As far as northern pike,'' Fryda said, "it's through the roof.'' He said the pike numbers are twice as high as they ever have been.

Walleyes are in good shape and the number of quality smallmouth bass on Sakakawea continues to rise, Fryda told the Bismarck Tribune.

While all indications are of a stable forage base for the fish, there is some bad news when it comes to the rainbow smelt on Lake Sakakawea.

Fryda said acoustic surveys last fall on the big lake showed a 40 percent decline in the number of smelt compared to the previous year.

But, Fryda said it's a hit the lake can take – at least for one year.

"The smelt numbers were still good in 2011 so we're in good shape for now,'' he said.

The one wild card in the equation, is what the lake level will be coming into April when the smelt spawn.

On Tuesday, Lake Sakakawea was at 1,827.62 feet and Lake Oahe was at 1,596.22 feet.

It could well be a year where there is a lot of pressure for Missouri River water, with the intense drought conditions that prevailed most of last year.

The forecast for runoff above the Fort Peck Dam and the Garrison Dam isn't exactly good news, either.

The Feb. 1 forecast for runoff above Fort Peck was 80 percent of normal with snowpack at 92 percent of normal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' next forecast will come in March, but Fryda said he isn't looking for much of an improvement.

Likewise, Fryda said the outlook for the Missouri River and Lake Oahe is pretty bleak.

The river and Oahe are still trying to make a comeback from the 2011 flooding that also flushed a lot of smelt downstream.

Fryda said it's a similar situation to what happened after 1997, when high flows on the Missouri flushed 90 percent of the smelt downstream.

The health of the system will hinge on how the system is managed, Fryda said.

If Lake Sakakawea gets its typical spring rise during the spawn, the smelt should be able to bounce back within a few years.

If the lake drops after the smelt spawn, the eggs will be left high and dry.

The character of the river itself also has changed, Fryda said. Over the years, the bank stabilization work that was done along the river served to contain the water during the 2011 flood.

In days of old, the water would spill over the banks and outward. But with nowhere else to go, the water went down, cutting a deeper channel in the river pretty much from the dam to south of Bismarck.

Fryda said what was lost in terms of fish habitat were sandbars and some of the backwater areas fish use to spawn.

The effects of the 2011 flood were already noticeable to anglers last year; the walleyes were small and hungry.

"Our size structure (for walleyes) has declined,'' Fryda said. "It's a similar reaction to what happened after '97.''

Fryda said the river has become a more simple system without a diversity of habitat – not only for the walleyes, but for pike and other species that serve as the forage base for game fish.

Access along the river could be an issue as well, depending on releases from Garrison Dam, he said.

With so many factors in the hands of nature, it comes down to water management, and with the drought conditions persisting in the lower basin, it will be a difficult year to keep everyone happy.

So for now, it's a waiting game to see how the rest of the winter plays out.

Fryda said he's not holding his breath.

"It's probably not going to be great by any means,'' he said.

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