High water creating challenges for fisheries on the Missouri River System

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GARRISON, N.D. - 2019 will go down in history as another extremely wet year in the Missouri River System. In this week's segment of North Dakota Outdoors Mike Anderson explains the fish management challenges associated with the high water.

The releases out of the Garrison Dam from Lake Sakakawea have never been this high this late in the year, and generally high water is good for fish.

"High water there actually can be some issues with the fisheries and we're seeing a little bit up in Sakakawea that there's maybe too much water. And in particular this year, we have entrainment and that's fish being lost through the dams, over the dam or through the dam. And because they've had the spillway cracked on Sakakawea or Garrison Dam most of the summer and including today, we're seeing a lot of fish going over that spillway and surviving, that's the good news," said Greg.

Last summer fisheries biologists tagged around three thousand walleyes in Lake Sakakawea. And a portion of those fish are being caught by anglers below the Garrison Dam.

"We had started a tagging study on Sakakawea this year and to-date, which is again towards the latter part of October here we already have 3 percent of what we tagged in Sakakawea showed up caught by anglers below Garrison Dam. So we know there's a fair number of fish going, of walleye going over, again, over the spillway in all likelihood," said Greg.

Power says salmon fishing was slow this year, and in October when biologists collect salmon during spawning they were found below the Garrison Dam. Typically, they show up in bays on Lake Sakakawea in big numbers.

"This year, they did not show up, they just were not in the lake. So we had, I believe, 98 percent of all the salmon we collected this year were actually below Garrison Dam, not above," said Greg.

The last few years biologists have been tagging trophy northern pike on Lake Sakakawea, too.

"And one of them that was tagged, I believe up in the Little Missouri Arm, which is, you know, 80, 90 miles upstream of the dam, was caught by an angler below the dam. So it's not just small fish, you know, of course, we've got a lot of smelt being entrained that's pretty typical with these high water years but larger fish like big pike and paddlefish," said Greg.

Power says fish entrainment is concerning, but in the big picture fish populations are strong in Lake Sakakawea and will be for years to come. Another positive with high water is that boat ramps are in good shape, too.

Power says the concern with releases at Lake Oahe Dam is forage fish like smelt being entrained through the dam.