These Dakota waters offer some of the best Northern Plains bass fishing that can be found.
The Dakotas get a lot of notoriety across the country for many things. Fantastic hunting and awesome vacation destinations are but two of the most well-known. One of the things not as widely known is how great the bass fishing is in the region’s northern plains. Local anglers certainly are aware there are some fantastic bass fishing opportunities in the Dakotas for largemouths and smallmouths.
Black bass populations typically are not as cyclical as some other species of sport fish. Even so, there are swings up and down due to spawning success, water level fluctuations, availability of forage and other factors.
To set the tone for the 2018 bass fishing season, we talked with fishery biologists, pro anglers and guides, and looked at creel and sampling data to get an idea of where to find the best bass fishing this year.
Here is a look at some of the top spots in the Dakotas this year.
We might as well start with one of the most well-known and acclaimed lakes in the region. Lake Oahe is home to one of the finest smallmouth fisheries in the Great Plains. In fact, it has been ranked several times on the Bassmaster Top 100 Bass Lakes lists.
There are a lot of anglers, even local anglers, who have no clue just how good the smallmouth fishing is at Lake Oahe. The lake is famous for its world-class walleye fishing, which mostly overshadows the smallmouths. Nonetheless, there are plenty of bronzebacks available there and not only that, there are plenty of really big fish too. It may be one of the Dakotas best kept secrets.
Robert Hanten, a fisheries biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said the lake has a high quality smallmouth population. The biologist said there were an estimated 110,007 smallmouths caught there in 2016 and then last year, numerous smallmouth bass over 4 pounds were reported. Creel data show that of the anglers specifically targeting smallmouth bass, the catch rate was 2.25 smallmouths caught per hour.
Fishing Tips from the Pros
Speaking with local anglers, it seems there just are not a lot of anglers who go to Oahe specifically to chase smallies. It seems a shame that so many folks are missing out, but it definitely means good things for those anglers who do target smallmouths. There are plenty of fish in the population and plenty of quality fish available. Some would even classify as trophy to many anglers.
There are abundant numbers of smallies from 12 to 15 inches and plenty that are larger. Fish in the range of 16 to 17 inches are common and fish up 19 inches are not really considered rare. Larger fish 20 inches and above are certainly possible.
Lake Oake is 370,000 acres so there is plenty of room to roam and find a spot away from the crowds. Smallmouths are well distributed, but the southern end of the lake tends to have a higher density of bronzebacks. The area of the lake between the Cheyenne Arm and the dam is especially good for big bronzebacks.
OTHER MISSOURI RIVER RESERVOIRS
Lake Oahe is not the only reservoir along the Missouri River system with good smallmouth fishing, although it does perhaps hold more larger size fish. Traditionally, Lake Sharpe has long been regarded as a good smallmouth destination, but it took a bit of hit back in 2011 due to flooding and water discharge. The good news is the fishery has rebounded and continues to improve.
Hanten said anglers caught an estimated 69,890 smallmouth bass at Sharpe in 2016. The catch rate for anglers specifically targeting smallmouths was 3.88 smallmouths per hour. With numbers like that, it is very easy to see where this lake gets its reputation.
The majority of the smallmouths in Sharpe are found in the lower half of the lake. Historically, the Fort Thompson area is a smallmouth stronghold. Another great spot for brown fish is the West Bend area. Look for the smallies around any rocky areas as well as some of the flats, especially those with aquatic vegetation.
Oahe and Sharpe are probably the best bets for smallmouths on the Missouri River system, but Francis Case is not far behind. Lewis and Clark boasts some decent smallmouth fishing as well. On up into North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea is another good choice with plenty of smallmouths and quality fish up to 5 pounds.
This lake in Oliver County, North Dakota is approximately 570 acres in size and arguably the best largemouth bass destination in the state. Nelson Lake is a cooling lake, so not only is there open water all year long, but the warm water provides a longer growing season and leads to good numbers of some really quality size largemouths. This point is made impressively by looking at the state record largemouth weighing nearly 8 1/2 pounds, which was caught at Nelson Lake in 1983.
Early in the year, the portion of the lake nearest the warm water discharge is the best bet for largemouths simply due to the warmer water. Bass in the warmer water of Nelson bite much more aggressively than at other area lakes in the spring. Crankbaits, worms, lipless cranks with rattles and spinnerbaits are all great choices when the bite is on.
Nelson does have some diversity of habitats that provide a variety of fishing options for bass anglers. There is plenty of rock throughout the lake as well as some aquatic vegetation. Channel edges, drop-offs and flats offer other great targets for largemouths.
NORTHEASTERN NORTH DAKOTA
Up in the northeastern section of the state, there are a couple lakes in particular to consider for largemouths. Fishery biologist Randy Hiltner said largemouth bass are a tertiary gamefish species behind walleye and pike in most waters where they coexist. Nonetheless, there are some good opportunities here for anglers who choose to pursue bass.
Hiltner said, “Wood Lake, which is a 102-acre natural lake, likely has the best size structure and good numbers. Most bass are about 12 inches, but nice fish up to 20 inches are also caught. Larimore Dam is a 67-acre reservoir that has a high number of largemouth with most less than 12 inches in length, however there are some nicer fish available up to 16 inches.”
SOUTHEASTERN NORTH DAKOTA
Anglers have several great options for black bass in the southeastern portion of the state. Southeastern District Fisheries Supervisor Brandon Kratz said, “I have several lakes in my district that contain good largemouth bass populations and provide good angling opportunities. Brewer Lake (Cass County), Clausen Springs (Barnes County) and Deadcolt Creek (Ransom County) provide consistent angling opportunities for largemouth bass and bluegill. Additionally, shore fishing, fishing piers and camping opportunities exist at all three places.Good boat ramps are present at the lakes as well.
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“Electrofishing, normal bass population assessment tool, catch rates for these three impoundments have consistently remained high over the last five years. Natural reproduction routinely occurs and the largemouth bass populations are self-sustaining. As an added bonus, adequate forage exists in all three to provide the necessary conditions to grow some large bass too.”
The sampling data from Brewer Lake show good numbers of bass throughout a wide size distribution. Over the past five years, fishery personnel have collected bass from about 3 1/2 inches to over 20 inches. The catch per hour for electrofishing averaged about 67 bass per hour over the same five-year period. That was the lowest average of the three lakes, but the catch rate was much higher last year at 110 bass per hour of electrofishing.
Comparing catch rates, Clausen Springs was phenomenal with a five-year average of 188.2 bass per hour of electrofishing. That was bolstered by an astounding catch rate last year of 464 largemouths per hour. Size distribution was good too, but topped out a little lower than Brewer with the largest bass collected being just under 19 inches.
Deadcolt Creek yielded the largest bass of the three lakes over the past four years of sampling with the largest measuring over 22 inches. The catch rate and size distribution was also excellent. Biologists averaged catching 124.8 largemouths per hour.
Quick Tip: Keep It Simple
While largemouth bass fishing is great in this part of the state, they are not the only black-bass game in town. A couple of area waters provide very good smallmouth fishing. Kratz said, “Spiritwood Lake (Stutsman County) and Lake Ashtabula (Barnes County) are an angler’s best bet regarding smallmouth fishing waters in my district. Again, there is good access, multiple boat ramps and fishing piers exist at both of these places.” The biologist has limited electrofishing data available, but these fisheries have existed for years and there are not only good numbers of fish, but a fair abundance of large fish as well.
The only sampling data available for Spiritwood Lake was from last year. Biologists caught 100 smallmouths per hour of electrofishing and the sizes ranged from about 3 1/2 inches up to 18 1/2 inches, which is a very respectable smallie in most anyone’s opinion. Two years of sampling was available for Lake Ashtabula and showed even better numbers than Spiritwood Lake. The catch rate for the two years averaged 192.7 smallmouths per hour with sizes ranging from 3 1/2 inches to about 19 1/4 inches.
Staying with the smallmouth theme, anglers have a real gem at Lake Audubon where there are plenty of smallies and a fairly good size distribution. There are plenty of smallies up to about 16 inches available and there are certainly larger fish present. Anglers routinely catch good numbers of smallmouths in the range of 2 to 3 pounds with 4-pound fish not being uncommon.
Remarkably, the smallmouth fishery is grossly underutilized at Lake Audubon and for that matter, throughout the entire state. Walleye fishing is exponentially more popular in North Dakota and smallmouths are hardly even considered by many anglers, which is in stark contrast to many other areas of the country where smallmouth fishing is considered the game of gods.
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The bonus though is anglers who do target smallmouths at Lake Audubon have almost zero competition from other anglers. This means excellent opportunities and a large supply of hungry bronzebacks.
Lake Audubon is perfect for smallies as there is an abundance of rock. Various rocky shorelines, large boulders, chunk rock and rip rap exists. There are also some areas with aquatic vegetation that hold good numbers of smallmouths. Sunken islands and other bottom irregularities also make good locations at which to find smallmouths. Slow-rolling a spinnerbait over a bottom hump with grass, especially during the summer at night, often yields some hefty bronzebacks.
OTHER GREAT OPTIONS
These are but a few of the top locations where anglers can find good black bass fishing in the Dakotas and there are numerous other options as well. For instance, there is some excellent smallmouth fishing available in the glacial lakes region of South Dakota. Some of these lakes have very good numbers of fish and there is always the possibility of hooking into a real giant. Largemouth fishing is also good in some of the lakes, but not as good as the smallies.
Some of the lakes in this area to consider for smallmouths are Enemy Swim, Waubay, Horseshoe and Reetz. Roy Lake has long been popular with smallmouth anglers and although the fishery has dipped a little in recent years, the lake still has good numbers of fish available. There is also a good fishery there for largemouth bass.
In North Dakota, look to Sheep Creek Dam for largemouth bass. There are a fair number of bigmouths present with good size distribution ranging from of 12 to 20 inches. North Lemon Lake is another top choice with abundant numbers of largemouths in the 15- to 20-inch range. For smallmouths, look to Heart Butte Dam or Lake Tschida. Smallmouth bass are abundant with good numbers of bronzebacks between 14 and 20 inches with larger fish possible on occasion.