Dakota bass fishing opportunities are often overlooked. In a region where species like walleye have traditionally been more popular, both smallmouth bass and largemouth bass have been historically underutilized. Because of the lack of overall pressure, the quality of some of these bass fisheries can be surprising. For a part of the world that doesn’t take bass fishing very seriously, there sure is some great bass fishing.
The contingency of anglers who do appreciate these Dakota bass has grown slowly over the past 15 years from a local perspective, and more anglers from outside the region are discovering these hidden gems. The popularity has had a noticeable increase in recent years. There are now regional bass tournaments held in the Dakotas along with a core following of very passionate bass anglers.
The Badlands Bass Bandits is a local club in North Dakota that has a growing membership, hosting nine tournaments this past season including a championship on Lake Sakakawea.
Badlands Bass Bandit member Eric Vossler noted that there are several avid bass anglers who are transplants to the Dakotas via the active Bakken oil fields and the Air Force bases. These transplants bring their affection for bass with them, but they are not the only anglers discovering these opportunities. More anglers like Vossler are discovering that these under fished opportunities are thrilling, and there are more traditional walleye anglers who are also discovering the allure of bass fishing.
The Dakotas are blessed with a surprising amount of quality bass fishing waters. Most notable would be the smallmouth bass fisheries located along the Missouri River system and the natural Glacial Lakes of northeastern South Dakota. Several natural lakes also have pockets of largemouth bass, and there are several dams and small ponds, particularly in western South Dakota, that boast largemouths.
THE MISSOURI RIVER SYSTEM
The entire Missouri River system has a viable smallmouth bass population. Francis Case Reservoir in particular is loaded with smallmouth bass and provides numbers of 2- to 3-pound fish, with larger fish a possibility.
Tom Steinhauser of Platte Creek Lodge finds some of the best smallmouth bass fishing near the Platte Creek Landing and to the south where there are shorelines with gravel and rock.
“We often catch some really nice bass pitching jigs along the bluffs and gravel bars along the shoreline early in the year,” Steinhauser noted. “There are several small bays and inlets that have cattails where the water warms up faster early in the season that hold bass. But as the year progresses, look for these fish to slide a little deeper,” he advised.
“Lake Sharpe is another tremendous smallmouth fishery,” added Steinhauser. Lake Sharpe is located directly above Francis Case on the Missouri River system and holds a robust smallmouth bass population. Focus on the West Bend Area and look for points and bluffs where there are rocks and weeds. Besides the obvious rock points and boulder areas, don’t overlook the larger sand flats that often have good weeds. Early in the season or early in the day, fish can often be found shallow but focus on the sharp breaks in 10 to 15 feet of water next to the flats as summer progresses.
Lake Oahe is South Dakota’s largest reservoir on the Missouri River and offers both size and numbers of smallmouth bass. Vossler often finds smallmouth bass relating to the main lake points that are near the mouths of large bays or major incoming creek arms.
“Look for smallmouths near shallow boulders and weedlines early in the summer and follow the fish deeper out to 10 to 20 feet of water off these primary points as the summer progresses,” he advised. “Tube jigs and crankbaits work well when fish are shallow while tube jigs and drop-shot rigs take over as fish slide deeper.”
Besides the classic rock and boulder points, Vossler also recommends riprap near bridges along with bridge pilings.
The stretch of Missouri River that runs through North Dakota also has abundant smallmouth bass populations with some fish scattered throughout the entire system. Lake Sakakawea is an enormous Missouri River Reservoir located in North Dakota that boasts some extremely quality fish with fish over 5 pounds possible. The patterns are similar to those found on downstream Lake Oahe. Focus on rock points and bars near the mouths of the bays. The east end of the reservoir near Wolf Creek, Garrison Bay and Steinke Bay seems to have a higher abundance of fish, but there are fish scattered up and down the lake. Besides classic boulder and rock structure, don’t overlook areas with curly leaf pondweed. Points that feature both weeds and rock are often the most productive.
Nearby Lake Audubon is an impoundment that is separated from Lake Sakakawea by the Highway 83 embankment. This impoundment offers fairly stable water levels and one of the highest population densities of smallmouth bass found in the state of North Dakota. One of Vossler’s top picks and favorite lakes to fish for bass, Audubon is a large lake that features several islands and bays so that anglers can get out of the wind if necessary and the patterns are diverse. For numbers of fish, throw crawfish imitating tubes and jigs up on the shallow rock bars and reefs that are numerous around the lake. Find bigger fish relating to the pencil reeds, cattails and curly leaf pondweed by throwing large swimbaits and spinnerbaits that imitate young perch. Lake Audubon boasts a staggering number of two to three pound bass but larger fish are possible.
To the east of Lake Audubon lies the McClusky Canal System, which was an irrigation project that was originally intended to provide water to eastern North Dakota but now links and connects several lakes and the canal along with the canal lakes boasts some really nice smallmouth bass along with a few really nice largemouth bass. While the lakes themselves can hold bass, particularly on the rock points, Vossler recommends the canals for finding the larger fish.
“We often use side imaging to find the largest boulders along these canals and that is often where we catch the biggest bass,” explained Vossler. Topwaters often work well in the mornings but for most of the day, you can’t go wrong with a crawfish imitating tube jig.
S.D. GLACIAL LAKES
While the Missouri River system that winds through both North and South Dakota provides an endless option for bass enthusiasts, another region that is on the radar for bass is South Dakota’s Glacial Lakes Region, which is a geological region of northeastern South Dakota that is covered with small lakes, many of which boasts strong populations of smallmouth bass and some largemouth bass.
Traditionally, Roy Lake, Enemy Swim Lake, Clear Lake and Pickerel Lake have all boasted some of South Dakota’s best smallmouth bass fishing in this region. But lakes like Waubay, Reetz and Horseshoe have also come on strong. The South Dakota state record smallmouth bass was set in 2013 out of Horseshoe Lake and was recently broken again this past summer with a 7 pound, 3-ounce fish.
Roy Lake’s smallmouth bass fishery has seemed to decline in recent years and recent South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks electroshocking surveys seem to confirm that the smallmouth population in Roy Lake isn’t what it once was. But while the smallmouth bass numbers and size seems to be down in Roy Lake, don’t overlook the largemouth bass population that seems to tuck back in the shallow weed flats and coves.
Nearby Clear Lake and Enemy Swim Lake both offer tremendous smallmouth bass fishing. Both lakes fish very similarly, focus on rock bars that combine rock and weeds using jigs and Ned rigs. Waubay Lake is the second largest natural Lake in South Dakota right behind nearby Bitter Lake and the bass population on Waubay has come on strong in recent years. Find smallmouths on Waubay by focusing on riprap and weedline edges, especially near rock or structure.
Reetz Lake and Horseshoe Lake located south of Webster, S.D., both boast top end smallmouth bass for this part of the world, with fish over 5 pounds possible. As mentioned earlier, Horseshoe Lake produced a South Dakota state record in 2013 and was again broken in 2016. Horseshoe Lake is a unique lake with sharp breaking shorelines with an abundance of flooded trees and brush. Submerged points and sunken islands produce bass on Horseshoe Lake. Nearby Reetz Lake boasts a good weedline bite. There are also a few sunken roadbeds and some riprap areas that produce nice fish.
Farther south, Poinsett Lake located near Brookings, S.D., is a large round lake that provides a popular smallmouth bass fishery. Like the other glacial lakes of this region, look for smallmouths along weed edges, reeds or any rock or gravel bar.
SOUTH DAKOTA STOCK DAMS
Some of South Dakota’s best largemouth bass fishing can be found on small stock dams across the region of the state often referred to as West River, or west of the Missouri River.
This semi-arid rangeland has abundant stock dams that were built for supplying water to livestock. While the productivity can rise and fall with water levels, these small gems can provide some tremendous largemouth bass fishing.
Most of these small dams are on private land where permission must be obtained for access, but there is one notable exception in the Pierre National Grassland located south west of Pierre, S.D., along Highway 83. The area features several public stock dams, some including fishing piers and boat ramps for small boats and kayaks. These stock dams produce largemouth bass over 5 pounds each season and are grossly under-fished.
North Dakota SMALL LAKE GEMS
The state of North Dakota also boasts several small lakes and reservoirs that are primed for producing some great bass fishing this upcoming season. Eric Vossler points to Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D., as a perennial favorite for producing both numbers and size. Focus on shallow rocks and weed flats particularly early in the day and slide out as deep as 15 feet during midday. Spinnerbaits shine around the weeds while tube jigs are popular along the sharp breaks and rock shorelines along the south end of the lake.
Another smallmouth bass fishery that is one of Vossler’s favorite North Dakota bass lakes might surprise some anglers. Lake Ashtabula located near Valley City is a long meandering reservoir built on the Sheyenne River. The Sheyenne River below the Baldhill Dam is a viable smallmouth bass fishery that is perfect for kayaking and canoe fishing enthusiasts but the larger Lake Ashtabula above the dam has quietly developed into a great bass lake that is extremely underutilized.
“Focus on the outside and inside weed edges on primary main lake points. We found that the key for catching nice bass was to find clearer water,” Vossler advised.
Nelson Lake located near Center, N.D., has historically been the state’s top largemouth bass fishery. This unique cooling lake features a warm water discharge that keeps the lake open through much of the year. Vossler added that Nelson Lake is a great fishery for catching high numbers of fish or to introduce somebody to angling. While the productivity to yield big fish has declined over the years, Nelson Lake still remains one of the state’s best bets for cracking a 5-pound-plus largemouth. The best time for big fish would be late February though April when many fish concentrate around the discharge and outflow of warm water where the current sweeps along the east side of the lake.