August 28, 2008

Sakakawea Producing Quality Chinooks Once Again



Scott Hobbs remembers when there were boats lined up on both sides of Highway 200 in Pick City and his gas lanes were full.

And that was before he turned the key to open his bait and tackle shop in the morning.

That was more than a few years ago, when salmon fishing on Lake Sakakawea was in its heyday.

But with nearly a decade of drought and dwindling water levels, the salmon fishery has suffered as much as the parched plains of the prairie.

But so far this season, anglers and biologists are cautiously optimistic that the chinooks are on the rebound.

With nearly 18 feet of new water in the big lake since June, thanks to late snowfall and timely spring rains in the eastern Rockies, the overall fishing picture looks like it may hold hope for the future.

Boat ramp access is as good as it's been in years and walleye fishing is making a comeback as well.

There are a lot of small fish to sort through, but the keepers are healthy-looking fish.

The quality of the salmon coming off Sakakawea in recent weeks also has seen a marked improvement.

Dave Fryda, fisheries biologist at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Riverdale office, says he's been pleasantly surprised at the run so far.

Still, he says it's a quality versus quantity issue.

Two to three years ago, a 3- or 4-pound salmon was considered a decent fish.

But in the past two or three weeks, there have been numerous whoppers weighed in (the minimum weight is 12 pounds) with a lot more in the 8-10-pound range.

Two weekends ago, the Great Planners Trout and Salmon Club hosted its annual tournament on Lake Sakakawea and 39 teams weighed in 83 fish.

Hobbs said while a number of whopper salmon have come through his door, there are many other good fish not being weighed in.

"There have been a lot of 10- to 13-pound fish being caught this year," he said. "We're not hearing of too many people not catching at least an 8-pound salmon."

Fryda said the salmon being caught now are likely benefiting from a healthy supply of cisco.

Cisco are fast-growing members of the salmon family and can grow to weights of 5 pounds.

At least for the time being, the cisco have been the stopgap in the forage base for predator fish in Lake Sakakawea, complimenting rainbow smelt that have been on a steady decline since the drought cycle began.

Smelt spawn in extremely shallow water on gravely beds from about April 20 to May 20, Fryda said.

Therein lies the conflict: In recent years, that window has coincided with the spring drawdown when water is dumped from Sakakawea to favor downstream interests.

"Keep in mind on Sakakawea, the water that came in, came late," Fryda said. "We documented a lot of smelt eggs that were left high and dry."

What will happen by next spring is anyone's guess but Fryda said the new water that's been infused into the system this summer is a good start.

"Long-term, smelt will still be the backbone of our cold-water fishery," he said. "But (getting new water) it's the first major hurdle."

Smelt were introduced into Lake Sakakawea in 1971 and salmon were first stocked in the lake in 1976.

Fryda said in 2007, data showed the lake's smelt population was at about 10 percent of historic averages.

But cisco can grow up to 10 inches in length in the first year and sometimes salmon have a hard time keeping up with them, Fryda said.

"If they're able to stay on top of the cisco, they do well," he said.

That seems to be the case.

Jerry LaFavre of Mandan said last summer he went salmon fishing just twice.

He went out for the first time recently and said the fishing was great - and he was packing to go again as he was being interviewed for this article.

"It was the best salmon fishing I've had in years and years," LaFavre said. "It was fantastic compared to what it has been."

He said others he has talked to agree with his assessment as an angler; there may be fewer fish than back in the good old days, but the salmon coming in now are quality fish.

He said he had his best luck in about 85 feet of water in the areas of Government Bay and Pochant Bay, pulling herring and also with blue flashers and blue squid.

Hobbs echoed that, saying he's talked to a lot of people who have dropped salmon fishing in recent years because the fish simply weren't there.

Back then, Hobbs said it wasn't uncommon for 70 or more boats to be out at the same time downrigging for salmon.

LaFavre says in his case, it looks as though he picked a good time to get back into it.

"You have to have a good drag," he said. "It's fun to catch them again."

(Reach reporter Brian Gehring at 250-8254 or [email protected])

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