Smelt are few and far between

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by Katie Zerr

Anglers on Lake Oahe have been reeling in nice, healthy fish despite concerns last year’s flooding would damage the food source for the local favorite, walleye.

Fishing this spring has been very good according to reports, with northern and walleye catches showing healthy fish with good size.

But because of the spring flooding and massive evacuation of water from the reservoirs in 2011, there has been a concern that the walleyes’ favorite food source, the rainbow smelt, had taken a hit. Local fishermen remember 1997, when high water and increased flows through Oahe Dam decimated the baitfish population in the reservoir. For years following, the walleye caught in the lake were thin and small because of the lack of a food source.

According to GF&P Area Biologist Jason Jungwirth, there is concern about the smelt population in Lake Oahe. The GF&P has recently been netting fish throughout the reservoir, checking on the status of the population of the fish species found there.

“We haven’t seen any smelt up here,” he said Tuesday. “Our crews have monitoring nets in the smelt hotspots and have seen very few.”

Jungwirth said there is some concern in the agency about the smelt population in the reservoir. He said the biologists in Pierre will make any decisions on plans to deal with declining numbers after the extent of the damage to the baitfish is determined.

He said the walleye the crews are seeing are healthy.

“The walleyes look good. We are not concerned about the condition of the fish,” he said. “There are plenty of other baitfish out there.”

He said the walleye will have plenty to eat with other minnows and shiners, along with stocked gizzard shad, young perch, drum, crappies and bass available as a food source.

“The walleye won’t see this year’s spawn as a food source until June,” said Jungwirth. “It probably will be a really good fishing year.”

He said the warm winter and early spring warmth had biologists wondering if the weather would cause changes in the spawn season, but it is lining up to be a normal spawn.

“The northern are struggling to spawn because they need vegetation,” he said. “But we are seeing plenty of northern out there. This should be phenomenal northern fishery again.”

Jungwirth said there are a good number of large northern in Lake Oahe and the population is healthy and growing fast. He said the species may good number of large northern in Lake Oahe and the population is healthy and growing fast. He said the species may struggle a bit down the road if spawning conditions don’t improve for them, but for now the northern population is thriving.

Other species that are showing a growing populations are crappies, small mouth bass and catfish, he said. The crews are seeing solid number of both fish.

“If a person could figure out how to get them, they could take a lot of crappies out here,” he said.

The decline of smelt can pose a problem, but Jungwirth said the GF&P is staying ahead of situation with the monitoring system.

“They will get it figured out,” he said. “Then we set a plan in motion to right the ship.”

The department estimates that the rainbow smelt population is down 70 to 75 percent from last year’s estimate of more than 150 million.

Fishing is good
The weekly Glacial Lakes Fishing Report said there is a really good bite with most anglers using jigs and minnows in two to 25 feet of water. Jigs and minnows are the bait of choice with some using crank baits. Shore fishing is excellent around Mobridge.

In the Pollock, Akaska and Gettysburg areas fishing is going well with jigs and minnows being used in anywhere from five to 25 feet.

The report cites Mark Fincel, senior biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, reporting agency nettings over the fall indicated the third-highest year abundance of walleye since 1985.

– Katie Zerr –

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