Missouri walleye plentiful despite baitfish drop

Sioux Falls, S.D. (AP) – Anglers taking advantage of this year's mild spring are snagging plenty of walleye from the Missouri River despite a drop in the number of baitfish caused by last year's flooding, a state fisheries biologist said.

Mark Fincel, senior biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, said nettings over the fall indicated the third-highest year abundance of walleye since 1985, and enthusiasts dropping lines in the river's Lake Oahe reservoir are finding plenty of keepers.

Anglers are picking through fish just over the 15-inch minimum to get 18- to 19-inch catches, and some are throwing their one allotted over-20-inch walleye for a chance at a 24-inch fish, Fincel said.
That's a good sign for the fishery, he said.

"They're not picking through the smallest of the small to get a keeper fish,'' Fincel said. "They're looking at keeper fish and then saying, `Well we can go a little bit bigger.' That's something that we're pretty proud of.''

Jim Smith, who runs the Bob's Resort bait shop near Gettysburg, said anglers have been hooking walleyes from 12 inches up to 26 inches, continuing the trend from last summer.

"They caught them before the lake froze up, they caught them through the ice, and they're catching them this spring,'' Smith said.

Fincel said the walleye population is bountiful and healthy despite a drop in numbers of walleyes' primary food source, rainbow smelt.

The department estimates that the rainbow smelt population is down 70 to 75 percent from last year's estimate of more than 150 million. But most of the tiny fish that got flushed through the dam last summer were young, so there's still a strong adult population of rainbow smelt that could reproduce and bring the numbers back up.

"It's low, but it's definitely not the lowest we've seen,'' Fincel said. "What it really hinges on is whether we have a good spawn this year.''

Biologists and anglers had worried about a repeat of 1997, when hundreds of millions of baitfish were sucked through the dam, leaving Oahe's walleyes starving and skinny.

Many believe that there were too many rainbow smelt in the population in 1997 and the flood just gave it a little kick, Fincel said. He said the population numbers from the early 1990s are a better target for the system.

The lack of snowpack from a warm, dry winter has resulted in a very small rise in water levels this spring. The success of a season's spawn depends on numerous variables, which include how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the river dams' outflows, he said.

"These eggs are generally laid up in the shallow water areas so a lot of wind and wave action can actually damage those eggs,'' Fincel said.

Eggs will hatch when they're covered with water and are left relatively undisturbed, he added.

Rainbow smelt are the dominant prey fish in lower Lake Oahe, but they're not alone. The river over the past three years has seen an above-average production of other baitfish, such as yellow perch, white bass, freshwater drum, spottail shiners and emerald shiners.

And the GF&P is experimenting with a preliminary stocking of adult gizzard shad to provide another alternate food source for walleyes.

"This is the first we ever done this,'' Fincel said. "We don't know how this is going to take so we don't want to rely on it or be too optimistic about it.''

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