Brad Dokken: Zander column prompts reader questions about European cousin to the walleye
Arthur Forman, 94, of Grand Forks called me the other day to point out a couple of omissions in my column last Sunday about Kyle Heim, the Bismarck fisherman who caught a 27-inch, 7-pound zander June 6 while fishing Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D.
Why, Forman wondered, did neighboring states and Canada oppose the one-time introduction of the European walleye relative into Spiritwood in 1989? And what, he asked, did the North Dakota Game and Fish Department spend on stocking zander when it imported eggs from Holland and Finland?
Both are good questions.
First, for those of you who missed last week's column, a bit of background.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department began exploring options for stocking zander in state waters in the late '80s. Spiritwood Lake was chosen because it's a closed-basin lake, meaning there would be minimal risk of zander expanding into other waters.
A nearby hatchery also provided convenience.
The zander discussion preceded the wet cycle that began in the early '90s. North Dakota had considerably fewer lakes back in those days, and many of those lakes were shallow and turbid, conditions that aren't conducive to natural walleye production.
Zander, by comparison, do well in the shallow, turbid European waters where they are native, and the thinking at the time was that they'd thrive in similar North Dakota waters, providing new fishing opportunities and taking pressure off the state's walleye stocking program.
In addition, zander have been described as "walleyes on steroids," and fish in the 25- to 40-pound range have been documented in Europe.
With that as a backdrop, the Game and Fish Department, using eggs imported from Finland and hatched in North Dakota, stocked 180,000 European zander fry and 1,050 fingerlings in 1989. Two previous stocking attempts in 1987 and 1988 failed. According to Herald archives, the eggs in 1987 were destroyed over concerns—later proven to be unfounded— that they carried a disease deadly to northern pike.
Then, in 1988, during the peak of a drought, salamanders and extreme heat combined to destroy 300,000 zander fry in the hatchery rearing pond before they could be stocked.
While the third time proved to be a charm, the North Dakota's zander program didn't sit well with neighboring states and provinces, who feared the nonnative fish species could be harmful to walleyes and other native fish.
In fact, numerous biologists throughout North America expressed concerns about the zander introduction, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
Nonnative species of any kind tend to outcompete native species in ecosystems where they're introduced, either intentionally or otherwise.
"Many biologists had—and have—concerns that zander could or would negatively affect other established fisheries," Power said. "Especially walleye fisheries."
North Dakota scrapped the zander program after the 1989 stocking, and there were no reports of zander being caught until 2000, Herald archives show. Gene Van Eeckhout, now retired as district fisheries supervisor for southeast North Dakota, said in a 2007 Herald story the department received reports every couple of years after 2000, including a "spurt of activity" in 2004. Game and Fish also picked up some young-of-the year zander in test nets that year, Van Eeckhout said.
The reports made a strong case for a limited, naturally producing zander population in Spiritwood, but before Heim's catch in June, the last documented report of an angler catching a zander was in July 2013, when Christopher Sayler of Jamestown caught a 32-inch, 11-pound, 3-ounce zander that stands as the North Dakota state record.
Only three zander are listed in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Whopper Club database and all have come from Spiritwood.
According to Power, 2012 was the last time the Jamestown fisheries crew captured adult zander in their test nets in Spiritwood Lake, but the department received several reports of anglers catching zander during the summer of 2016.
The crew recently completed its annual adult fish sampling at Spiritwood, and while no zander were sampled, the survey "yielded the best walleye catch in that lake in many years," Power said.
As for the cost of the zander program, Power said good budget documentation was neither required nor tracked in the late 1980s at the time of the stocking effort.
"Undoubtedly, there was a fair commitment by the Game and Fish Department in obtaining and raising the zander," Power said.
One thing's for certain—a similar zander stocking effort will never happen again in Spiritwood or anywhere else in the U.S. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the zander as an "injurious wildlife" species under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the fish from being introduced in U.S. waters.
Even today, the zander remains an emotional species among North Dakota's neighbors, if a Facebook response to last week's column is any indication.
"Kill every one that's caught!" a Canadian friend said in a comment. "Don't want any of those buggers invading other waters!"
Pro, con or neutral, the zander program marks a colorful chapter in the history of North Dakota fisheries management.