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North Dakota Fisheries Investigations

Historical Introduction


References to the fishery resource of North Dakota were made well before statehood. French fur traders such as Verendrye referred to fish within today's state boundaries during the early exploration years of the late 1700's. In fact, Verendrye, Lewis and Clark and other explorers, trappers, and traders likely ate numerous meals consisting of fish, especially channel catfish, caught and prepared by various Indian tribes.

Hook and line fishing and trapping of fish were common practices of Native Americans. Fish hooks belonging to Indians that inhabited the Plains Village Sites along the the Missouri River date back to 1100 A.D. (Signe Snortland-Banks, Bur. of Reclamation., pers. comm). As European settlers moved west and south into what was to become North Dakota, outdated hook and line methods and primitive Indian fish traps were replaced with more efficient nets. By 1883, netting of fish had become so widespread and fish stocks so depleted, that the Dakota Territorial Legislature limited the use of nets and established a season for select species (Saabye and Herzog 1981).

In 1895, a "fish commissioner" position was established in North Dakota whose duties included propagating, transporting and stocking fish. Because the state did not have a fish hatchery until 1909, the federal government, through the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, was the vehicle for fish importation and stocking in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The first documented, though poorly recorded, stocking in North Dakota occurred in 1893 and involved an unknown number of ‘black bass' put into Lake Metigoshe (N.D. Game and Fish Dept., unpubl. data). Barrett (1900) was the first to publish a North Dakota stocking event which involved lake trout fry in a stock pond near Oakes. Interestingly, neither of these species are native to North Dakota. The history of introducing and stocking fish in North Dakota's water likely began well before these recorded incidents. From 1840 through 1860, westward railroad expansion likely allowed for the classic "cream canning"; that is, fish from eastern states were brought into the Dakota Territories in cream cans via the railroad and stocked into small reservoirs, ponds and creeks, built by the railroads for their steam engines.

Though crude numbers of fish stocked into various water bodies across the state began to be recorded in the early 1900's, it wasn't until the 1920's and 1930's that better record-keeping of stocking efforts, including sources, were made. References such as the following illustrate the continued widespread movement of fish - ‘Two carloads of fish have been shipped into North Dakota from hatcheries in neighboring states (Wisconsin and Montana), another carload is expected in the near future. Fish have also been supplied from the Department's own hatchery at Lisbon and thousands taken from over-stocked bodies of water for transplanting. Several thousand fish have also been taken from landlocked waters and transplanted to streams and lakes that will provide the desired habitat' (N.D. Outdoors, 1939).

It is difficult to know if all fish documented during the earliest surveys were in fact native, due to the likelihood of unrecorded stockings. Girard (1858) compiled some taxonomic findings of the earliest fish surveys conducted in a few select drainages in what was then Dakota Territory. Jordan (1878), Woolman (1896), and Everman and Cox (1896) intensified fish survey efforts covering most major drainage's of the state. Hankinson (1929) surveyed numerous drainage's, especially in the eastern half of the state, and compared the results with previous surveys. More intensive surveys in the upper Sheyenne River and the Little Missouri River followed in the late 1940's and early 1950's (Wilson 1950; Personius and Eddy 1955). Carufel (1958) was the first author to attempt to develop a statewide fish species list and Dotson (1964) provided the first species update. Between 1969 and 1987 there were seven complete or incomplete fish species lists with the most comprehensive of these being Ryckman (1981) who provided a statewide species checklist, Owen et al. (1981) whom gave detailed species distributions in North Dakota basins affected by the proposed Garrison Diversion Unit, and Reigh (1978) who inventoried rivers and streams in southwest North Dakota. Most recently, Peterka and Koel (1996) reviewed and summarized the distribution of fishes in the Red River Basin.

The need for better review and documentation coupled with trend analysis of past and ongoing fishery surveys throughout the state necessitate a status report on North Dakota's fishery. The objectives of this report are to provide a revised species list including discussion of native and introduced species, document the status of the various species, and identify factors (real or perceived) that have influenced the status of native species.


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