Brad Dokken: There's no opening day hype, but fishing in North Dakota is better than ever

May 4—I've been around long enough to remember when North Dakota didn't have a year-round fishing season. The last time the state actually had an opening day was more than three decades ago.

North Dakota established a statewide year-round fishing season in 1993, with a license year that runs from April 1 to March 31 of the following year.

So, if you fish in North Dakota, you needed a new fishing license April 1.

In my experience, at least, the fishing opener in North Dakota wasn't the marketing event it is in Minnesota. And year-round fishing hasn't had an impact on fish populations. Walleye fishing in North Dakota has never been better — a scenario that has sounded a bit like a broken record in recent years (but in a very good way). Since many North Dakota lakes are reliant on stocking, catching a fish before it has spawned is less of an issue than it is in neighboring Minnesota or Canadian provinces such as Manitoba and Ontario.

Thanks to a series of several wet years beginning in 1993 or so, walleye opportunities in North Dakota these days extend far beyond the "Big 3" — Devils Lake, Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. Dozens of new, so-called "prairie lakes" have popped up across the state in the past decade or two, and they've proven extremely effective at producing catchable-size walleyes in a short amount of time.

It's not uncommon, I've been told, for a walleye to reach 15 inches in 16 to 18 months. That's an off-the-charts fast growth rate.

North Dakota today has about 450 fishable waters — an all-time high — compared with 250 or so just a couple of decades ago.

Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, touched on the popularity of year-round fishing Tuesday night, April 16, during the department's spring Advisory Board meeting in Larimore.

Much-needed rain was falling that night, but the weather was beautiful a couple of days earlier, and anglers were making the most of it. Wardens and department fisheries staff across the state reported they had probably never seen so much spring fishing activity, Power said.

"For sure this early in the year — I mean, that's unheard of in the middle of April" most years, Power said. "And I was thinking while driving up here that 20 years or so ago, that wouldn't have happened because we had a closed season. The spring fishing you see now in years like this, it's kind of cool that people can get out in the boat and do it.

"There's a lot of fishing activity already going on."

Year-round fishing has been especially popular among anglers who target northern pike shortly after ice-out, Power said, an opportunity that didn't exist statewide before 1993.

"What was really cool was that it opened up that spring pike fishing that used to be closed," he said. "You still see in the month of April, a lot of shore fishermen. Not as many as there used to be because we're starting to age out — the people that like pike — but we didn't touch the population with a year-round season; we really didn't."

While Game and Fish now manages nearly 450 lakes across the state, the new two-year proclamation of fishing regulations is about 500 words shorter than the previous one.

"That's one of the goals of the department — keeping things as simple as possible," Game and Fish Director Jeb Williams said at the Larimore meeting. "We have more fishing opportunity than we've ever had in North Dakota, but yet our regulation guide, our proclamation, got smaller.

"People appreciate that (and) we appreciate that," Williams added. "I don't think we have to look very far east to see, sometimes, some complicated regulations from lake to lake to lake."

Despite the differences in the way Minnesota and North Dakota manage their fisheries, anglers in the two states share a passion for walleyes. Northern pike might be the North Dakota state fish, but there's no question that walleyes rank first in many anglers' hearts.

"We know people love walleye in North Dakota, and the prairie lakes have just exploded," Williams said. "That's a nice thing for folks where Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake or Lake Oahe isn't necessarily in their backyard. They can have those opportunities for nice fishing on some of those smaller lakes close to home, where they don't have to take those longer trips.

"And that's really been something fun to watch."