If you want to get into bass in the Dakotas, check out these great locations. (May 2010)
Bass might indeed be king across the United States in regards to popularity and interest but in the Dakotas, both smallmouth bass and largemouth bass play second fiddle to a fish with marble eyes and teeth ... walleyes. The fact that walleyes are so desirable in both Dakotas does bodes well for anglers, however, who love catching respectable bass. You see, both North and South Dakota have excellent bass fishing ,and the best part of all, most of the locals are so hung up on walleyes that you can usually experience this great bass fishing all to yourself.
Compared to the rest of the country, fishing pressure is non-existent for bass. No fishing tournaments, no big bass contest, no bass guides, no attention whatsoever. I would be willing to guarantee that most anglers would be pleasantly surprised to find just how good the bass fishing is in these northern plain states. There are actually dozens of strong bass fishing waters scattered across both North and South Dakota, but for the sake of this article, we are going to try and focus on six key fisheries that are open to public angling and have boat access.
Roy Lake Region -- South Dakota
Perhaps the most well known region for Dakota bass angling centers around Roy Lake, South Dakota. Roy Lake is located in the Glacial Lakes land formation of northeastern South Dakota. There are actually several strong bass fisheries in this region, some of the most notable include Roy Lake, Bitter Lake, Enemy Swim, Cattail Kettle, Clear Lake and Pickerel Lake. The smallmouth bass in particular top out at over five pounds and this region is notorious for stocky smallmouth bass that might average over 16 inches. Largemouth bass are also abundant with some fish reaching trophy status.
According to a local bass fishing fanatic, Dennis Kessube of Big Stone City, South Dakota, whom has a reputation as being one of the region's most astute anglers, rock location often keys smallmouth bass locations on these natural lakes. "For most of spring and early summer, these fish are relating to the shorelines," explains Kessube. There is obviously a lot of shoreline to explore even on a small lake but Kessube stresses that anglers can often narrow down their search by focusing on shorelines with rock. "Look for the windswept shorelines that have round rocks the size of bowling balls or smaller, that seems to be a prime area to find bass. If the sun is beating down on those rocks early in the season, these fish can be real shallow along the shore."
Kessube often covers water by burning top water lures across the shorelines. Usually, there is plenty of wind in South Dakota so try and keep the wind at your back, some wave action on the shoreline is usually good. Kessube's go to top water lure for covering water is a lure called the Salmo Pop. "Just snap and reel but you don't really have to let the lure sit at all, I work these lures fairly fast and the fish just clear the water when they hit them. If weeds aren't a problem, I like to cast Rapala X Raps or Salmo Hornets, both of those lures work great. If weeds are coming up, I like to snap plastic baits like Northland Rock R Minnows in perch and fire tiger colors. Spinner baits are also a really good option, especially in weeds as the season progresses."
According to Jan Thames of Roy Lake Resort ( www.roylakeresort.com), fishing for smallmouth bass in particular is growing in popularity especially amongst anglers from other parts of the country. "The smallmouth bass really are one of the region's best kept secrets and the quality of fish is fantastic," stressed Thames.
Nelson Lake -- North Dakota
Nelson Lake is located in west central North Dakota near the community of Center. This 573-acre lake is actually a cooling lake. As a result, there is always warm water entering the lake and the lake doesn't freeze during the winter, which is quite an oddity in North Dakota. Compared to other lakes in North Dakota, the water temperature is much warmer and thus the growing season is much longer.
In fact, the state record largemouth bass for North Dakota was caught out of Nelson Lake, which weighed 8 pounds and 7 ounces. In a nutshell, Nelson Lake has historically been one of the top fisheries in the state for largemouth bass. During the winter or whenever the air temperatures are below about 50 degrees, many of the bass congregate near the outlet where the discharge pumps out water that can be warmer than 90 degrees.
As the summer progresses, the productive locations shift towards the inlet on the opposite end of the lake where the plant takes water in. This lake features a wide variety of options which includes riprap, creek channels and weed beds. Anglers can generally catch bass with just about any presentation with; Texas rigged plastic worms, spinner baits and crankbaits all working well. During spring and early summer, the majority of bass are caught tight to the shorelines along rock, weeds and other cover. Nelson Lake also has a large crappie and bluegill population and anglers often report fifty to a hundred fish days. Note, however, that fish caught from Nelson Lake are not recommended for eating.
Lake Sharpe -- South Dakota
Lake Sharpe is a long reservoir located on the Missouri River below Lake Oahe in central South Dakota. The west bend region in particular is known for producing staggering numbers of bass but fish are abundant throughout the whole system with the tail water areas producing best into the dog days of summer.
This fishery boasts plenty of 12- to 17-inch bass with 20-inch fish possible. This huge population of smallmouth bass feasts on an endless diet of gizzard shad. Anglers generally focus their attention on bluffs and shoreline structure. Stable weather often finds bass shallow during most of the spring and early summer. Anglers often work points and bluffs where shale and rock has fallen into the water. Rocks are often key for finding these fish and most of these fish will be in less than five feet of water unless there are storms or weather systems that might push these fish into deeper water.
Pitching plastics like shad bodies up onto the points works extremely well. Shad profile crank baits like Rapala Shad Raps and Salmo Hornets are also popular. Often, anglers catch smallmouth bass up on the tops of the rock piles and points while walleyes can be found just slightly deeper. Wind, however, can disrupt this pattern. If possible, avoid strong winds as wind typically clouds up the water, reducing visibility. Often, when the waves pound into a shoreline, creating a mud line, the walleyes move in and the bass move out.
Lake Audubon -- North Dakota
This 16,611-acre lake is actually a product of the Garrison Dam project on the Missouri River near the community of Garrison. Also regarded as a premier walleye fishery, Lake Audubon has quietly emerged as one of the region's top smallmouth bass fisheries as well wit
h huge numbers of 14- to 18-inch fish, with some fish topping over 20 inches. Lake Audubon features a lot of structure.
Complex reefs and sunken islands, points, riprap and saddles. According to local Evinrude Pro, Dennis Jeffries of Garrison, North Dakota, (www.garrisonmotel.com) the northeastern section of the lake is a great area to focus on when fishing for bass. "There are a lot of islands in this area and the bass love the rip rap and rock that is around these islands. When the sun comes out, fish the shallow points and bars that come off of these islands ... most of the fish will be shallow, less than four feet."
According to Jeffries, suspending stick baits like Rapala Husky Jerks and Salmo Stings are really effective for these spring time bass. "Fish these baits slow with several pauses during each retrieve, if the stick baits don't catch fish, a simple slip bobber set up with a minnow or leech is absolutely deadly," states Jeffries.
McClusky Canal -- North Dakota
Also a product of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, the McClusky Canal feeds a series of lakes, all of which produce enormous smallmouth bass. These lakes include West Park Lake, New Johns Lake, East Park Lake and Holmes Lake. According to Bismarck angler, Mort Bank whom spends a great deal of time fishing these canal lakes, the population densities seem much higher on nearby Lake Audubon but the average size of the fish is usually larger on the canal lakes.
In a nutshell, don't expect huge numbers of smallmouth bass but watch out when you catch them because some of these fish can top out at over 5 pounds. Mort Bank attacks these lakes early in the season when most of the fish are shallow. "Any kind of rock or timber on the shoreline can hold bass, they will often school in areas so cover water until you bump into fish." According to Mort, suspending stick baits are tough to beat on this body of water. "The Rapala X Rap is a go to lure that has really worked well for me and plastic swim baits are also deadly."
Spiritwood Lake -- North Dakota
This small, wooded lake near Jamestown, North Dakota held the state record bass in North Dakota for several years (5 pounds, 15 ounces) and has a long reputation for producing big smallmouth bass. For much of the summer, this lake usually sees more recreational traffic than fishing pressure. In fact, this lake is one of the few lakes in North Dakota that has been developed with lake cabins. Anglers often find smallmouth bass tight to the shorelines early in the season, particularly along the south shore of the lake which is predominately rock. Rocky shorelines, weed beds, docks and fallen timber can all hold fish. Acre per acre, this might be one of North Dakota's best kept secrets for really nice bass, many measuring over 18 inches.