Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Planting Fish in North Dakota’s Lakes


When anglers think about fishing in North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake come to mind. These lakes offer world-class walleye fishing, but there are plenty of northern pike, perch and sunfish abounding in lakes and rivers across the state.

The fishing waters of North Dakota are managed by the State Game and Fish Department, and its Fisheries Division does the work of fish-hatching, stocking and lake renovation.

On this date in 1915, the State Fish Hatchery was in the news, for it had delivered a batch of young trout to Dickinson and those trout were successfully placed in local streams. The fishermen around Dickinson were “elated over the arrival” of the “lot of trout.” For several years, the State Fish Hatchery had been sending fish for “stocking the streams” and local anglers hoped for “good sport within a few years” – when the fish matured.

The trout came from North Dakota’s first State Fish Hatchery, situated near Gravel Lake and Lake Upsilon, in Rolette County. It was called the St. John Fish Hatchery due to its location eight miles west of the town of St. John.

The St. John Fish Hatchery, built in 1909-1910, was the brainchild of R.W. Main of Cando, a former state senator, who was described as a “naturalist by instinct and an artist by culture” and he had a cottage at Fish Lake.

R.W. Main surely had the Cando spirit, for he envisioned a place for the propagation of fish eggs and young fry in the cold-water lakes of the Turtle Mountains. Captain Main, as he was known, became the Fish Commissioner and convinced the state legislature to invest in building a fish hatchery in order to improve angling in the state.

The first settlers believed that nature’s bounty of game and fish was inexhaustible, but overfishing had rapidly depleted the fish in state waters, generally within twenty years after angling began in convenient lakes.

Fish Commissioner R.W. Main was like a force of nature himself, and headlines reflected his energy in operating the hatchery and in distributing fish to the numerous lakes in the state. A 1912 headline read: “He Will Produce 15,000,000 Fish,” and in 1914: “R.W. Main Will Plant Nearly Two Million Fish.”

The St. John Hatchery operated from 1909 through 1923 when the state built the new Spiritwood Lake Hatchery near Jamestown.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Dickinson Men Have Fry Planted,” Grand Forks Herald, July 8, 1915.

“The New Fish Hatchery In The Turtle Mountains,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, May 14, 1910, p. 8.

“Fish Hatchery Is Start Of A Big Institution,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, June 22, 1910, p. 3.

“Fish Planted in N.D. Lakes,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, August 25, 1910, p. 3.

“State Game And Fish Commission At Minot: Discuss Plans For Erection of New Fish Hatchery In Rolette County,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, May 4, 1909, p. 4.

“Fish Commissioner Is Going To Make Good With New Hatchery,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, October 5, 1909, p. 3.

“Governor Burke’s Message,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, January 7, 1909, p. 6.

“Fish Hatchery Is About Completed,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, March 14, 1910, p. 1.

“He Will Produce 15,000,000 Fish,” Grand Forks Herald, May 3, 1912.

“R.W. Main Will Plant Nearly Two Million Fish,” Grand Forks Herald, March 18, 1914.

Archives State Agencies, Description, State Historical Society of N.D., State Game and Fish Department,, accessed on May 30, 2013.

Doug Leier, “Fishing History in North Dakota,” Dickinson Press, July 19, 2012,, accessed on May 30, 2013.