North Dakota’s first salmon fishery taking hold

Unlike chinook salmon like this one that frequent coastal waterways, North Dakota's salmon do not have access to a vast ocean where they can feed and mature, eventually returning to fresh water to spawn.

RIVERDALE, N.D. — It is a fish tale worth telling, again and again and again.

Without the assistance of dedicated fish biologists and the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, North Dakota would not have a salmon fishery. The chinook, or King salmon, that roam Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River are land-locked. Unlike the salmon that frequent coastal waterways, this state’s salmon do not have access to a vast ocean where they can feed and mature, eventually returning to fresh water to spawn.

The Minot Daily News reports that salmon die after reaching spawning age, usually within three to four years of age. Sometimes less. Since there is no natural reproduction of salmon in North Dakota, all of the state’s popular salmon population would disappear without the  assistance of the state’s Game and Fish Department in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Game and Fish annually harvests chinooks during the spawning run in late fall. That’s when salmon that had been released into Lake Sakakawea or the Missouri River return to the area of their release after roaming the reservoir or river, feeding primarily on smelt. The harvested salmon are taken to the Garrison Hatchery where the eggs are removed from the females and fertilized before being placed in large incubation jars within the hatchery.

Currently there are about 420,000 young salmon, products of last fall’s artificial spawn, swimming in holding tanks at the hatchery’s Salmon Building. They are about 3.5 inches long now but will grow an inch or more longer before they are scheduled to be stocked out in late May.

“So far, so good. All are doing well,” said Sean Henderson, Garrison Hatchery. “We had to move some of the fish from the tanks into the raceways to accommodate our numbers. They are eating well.”

Last fall’s egg take was excellent. Eye-up, the stage when a young fish’s eyes are visible within the egg, meaning a good chance of hatching success, was higher than expected. It all added up to exceeding the goal of raising 400,000 salmon for stocking purposes.

“We should be stocking maybe five percent more than the request number, which is good,” said Henderson. “I think we had something like 79 percent survival from spawn to first feed. Typical performance is about 63 to 64 percent.”

North Dakota’s water conditions do not allow salmon to spawn naturally. Salmon typically use shallow, clear-flowing streams to lay their eggs. Reservoir and Missouri River salmon do not have access to those types of conditions.

“The whole salmon fishery here is dependent on fisheries’ biologists and the hatchery staff,” Henderson said. “It feels great to contribute to people’s enjoyment. I’m grateful I get to do it.”

Salmon fishermen are a dedicated bunch. When the chinooks begin to show up on the lower end of Lake Sakakawea, they attract lots of attention from eager anglers. The salmon are loads of fun to catch and, for many, wonderful on the plate.

“Last year, we stocked 140,000. This year we plan on stocking 400,000,” said Russ Kinzler, NDG&F. “This year we could have three year classes spawning, which we haven’t had for a while. We won’t know until summer but indications are they are out there.”

Last year, says Kinzler, the bulk of female salmon in the spawning run were 2-year-olds and most of the males were one year old. That is an indication of how strong the year’s class is. Kinzler says he expects a good number of 3-year-old salmon to show up this year.

“Historically, when we see good numbers of young male salmon in the fall, that says we should see good numbers the following year,” Kinzler said. “We’ve got the second highest survey of smelt. There’s plenty of forage out there. The biggest fish always show up in July. Most of the fish caught then are coming to spawn. I think the run this year will be as good as last year, if not better.”

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