Hunting Fishing

Brad Dokken: Zander catch reports become more frequent in North Dakota

North Dakota fishing has been in the news this spring, and not only for the new state record walleye, a 16-pound, 9-ounce behemoth Tom Volk of Lincoln, N.D., caught April 21 in the Heart River, a Missouri River tributary.

Also notable are the zander photos that have been all over the internet in recent weeks.

Whether driven by social media or an actual uptick in population is open to speculation, but

North Dakota has the only zander population in North America, so the phenomenon is very interesting indeed.

A European cousin to the walleye, zander were stocked in Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D., in 1989 as part of a one-time effort aimed at expanding fishing opportunities at a time when there was much less water on the landscape than there is today.

Zander bear a close resemblance to walleyes, but the dorsal fin has different markings, and the lateral line is more pronounced. Zander also grow larger; fish in the 25- to 40-pound range have been documented in their European home waters.

North Dakota's state record zander, caught in July 2013, measured 32 inches and weighed 11 pounds, 3 ounces, Game and Fish records show.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department scrapped the zander program after the 1989 stocking of 180,000 fry and 1,050 fingerlings because of concerns from neighboring states and Manitoba. As I reported last summer, there were no reports of zander being caught by anglers fishing Spiritwood until 2000, and the occasional zander catch has been reported ever since.

This spring, zander photos have been almost a weekly occurrence on social media sites.

That might be cool for anglers who drool at the prospect of catching a 25-pound-plus fish that resembles a walleye – count me in that camp – but it poses a dilemma for fisheries managers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2016 listed the zander as an "injurious wildlife" species. Given that status, the uptick in photos definitely has the attention of Game and Fish Department fisheries managers.

"Based on the netting data we have collected over the years there has not really been much to suggest that the zander population has noticeably expanded – certainly contrary to what angler reports have been this winter (and) spring," BJ Kratz, southeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Jamestown, said in an email.

Kratz says he plans to intensify sampling efforts this year because of those angler reports.

Especially interesting is the recent spread of zander into Alkali Lake, a shallow, 680-acre lake that's basically connected to Spiritwood.

Zander had never been documented in Alkali Lake until late last summer, when fisheries crews sampled the lake to determine the extent of a summer fish die-off, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

The lake was basically dead from 4 feet and deeper, but crews sampled lots of fish in shallow water, Power said, including "a few" young, small zander.

"To be honest, we just found out about the zander in (Alkali Lake) late last summer and early fall," Power said. "We need to do some field reconnaissance this spring immediately, for sure.

"It's something that cannot be dismissed at any level."

Zander, which Power says are known to be more net-shy than walleyes, have always been at a low level of abundance in the department's test nets.

They're also showing up in varying sizes, which further suggests a viable breeding population.

"We're catching a few more in our nets, but anglers are definitely catching more," Power said. "Now, understand – and I don't think this is any secret, either – for years, we heard second-hand reports of locals catching (zander), but they were very lock-jawed about it and didn't really share the information.

"Here in the last year, as more and more people must be experiencing it, I don't know what's going on, but social media takes just a couple of people, and the word is out, definitely. They're still very infrequent, but undoubtedly, they've reproduced somewhere in the system there."

The uptick in social media photos has fueled rumors that Game and Fish is planning to kill off Spiritwood and Alkali lakes to eradicate the zander population, but that's not currently in the cards, Power says.

"Short-term, we don't have any plans to kill it," he said. "Long-term, you never know."

Going to Spiritwood Lake or Alkali Lake and expecting to catch a zander might be a stretch, but there's no disputing the opportunity exists.

It's hard to keep fishing secrets in this age of social media and instant information.

"There's three camps," Power said. "The vast majority of people out there are indifferent – don't know, don't care. And you've got the locals, especially, who like a few zander – it's kind of a novelty. And then you get the people, certainly from out of state, who feel we need to get rid of them right now.

"So, we're dealing with all three camps."

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