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Missouri River Spring Fling

Missouri River Spring Fling

What will you throw on Sakakawea and Oahe for northerns and walleyes? And when? Experts share their experience to help you score trophy game fish. (March 2010)

The best time to start spring fishing is just as soon as the first open water forms along the dormant brown shorelines of the Dakotas. That's when the northern pike have already begun lurking along the shallows of the Missouri River reservoirs, eager to spawn, and tempted by the baits and lures that fishermen plunk into the icy waters of the northern Great Plains.

photo by Ron Sinfelt

The northerns are the first big fish to entice anglers into the open water of the Dakota spring. They are simply the most eager to congregate near the shoreline.

But walleyes are right behind. And as the season progresses, the fishing generally gets better and better for them.

One of the main reasons that anglers will be concentrating on the Missouri River this time of year is because it remains one of the best places in North America to pick up trophy-sized northern pike, especially in lakes Oahe and Sakakawea, which have very good fishing for this large predator species.

Oahe, Sakakawea
The main deciding factor on when the main part of this trophy northern fishing takes places depends on the notoriously unpredictable weather in this part of the country. The peak few weeks can unfold in March, or later in April.

That's why it's difficult to plan far in advance. No one knows for sure when the best time will be, or, in fact, even when the ice will retreat from the shorelines.

On Lake Sakakawea that is especially the case, since it is farther north and is even colder heading into the spring than Oahe.

"Typically, we are pushing April when we start to see open-water fishing," says Dave Fryda, Missouri River systems supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "The upper end of lake opens quite a bit sooner than lower down."

When snow starts melting or early spring rains push water levels up in the tributaries, which has a tendency to hurry up the ice-out process. The warmer runoff melts the ice fairly quickly. It also attracts northerns and even walleyes that are moving upstream to get ready to spawn. Most importantly, it creates open water and anglers can fish it immediately with good success.

"Sometimes with a lot of flow coming down, it really eats up those bays," said Fryda. "It varies so tremendously from one year to the next."

On Lake Sakakawea, fishermen won't be going after medium-sized northern pike. There are few of those in the lake. Instead, the population is weighted toward very large northerns, and very small ones.

From a practical fishing aspect, anglers will be trying to catch huge northern pike that weigh in at more than 20 pounds. They are the remnants of the last great northern spawn back in the 1990s. Some of those fish remain in the lake. They have grown to tackle-busting size.

"In Sakakawea, our population has been trending down since the mid-'90s," said Fryda. "A lot of what is out there are very big fish. It is still the best chance in the state of catching a 20-pound-plus pike."

The makeup of the northern pike in both Sakakawea and Oahe is now in the process of changing dramatically. An explosive spawn last year has hurled hordes of small northern pike into both lakes. It's the kind of surge in numbers that coincides with the cycles of rain and drought that has shaped the northern Great Plains since long before it was settled, let alone since the Missouri River dams were built.

"The big thing this year is that the reservoir refilled," said Fryda. "This spring we had the second highest catch-rate of young-of-the-year northern pike."

Those northerns are a result of the flooded shoreline vegetation. It provides the ideal habitat for northern pike to spawn and for prey fish so that baby northerns will grow into lunkers.

Right now, the big year-class of juvenile northerns has grown to more than 10 inches. And they are now at the stage where growth will be rapid. Both Sakakawea and Oahe are literally full of small but very hungry northern pike.

They are still too small for much sport-fishing, though anglers will start picking them up this year, said Fryda. They are, of course, quite small by northern pike standards. And they can be a nuisance, as they bite offerings meant for bigger walleyes and other larger game fish.

However, few will be complaining too much because the plentiful northern population is an omen of the future. Barring some sort of calamity, the next big go-round of world-famous northern pike fishing on the Missouri River will be underway within a few years.

For right now, anglers still go after of the old year-class of giant northerns from the 1990s. Those fish often weigh in at more than 20 pounds. And there are some who are obsessed with catching them every spring.

One who is near the top of the list is Karl Palmer, who guides out of his Dakota Walleye Guide Service at Fort Pierre. The spring northern spawn is one of those niches that is popular with a subset of anglers who call on Palmer to give them the best chance of hooking into one of those great, fat females that lumber about the shoreline shallows this time of year.

The spring bite does not last long. And since ice conditions vary from year to year, even predicting when it will occur within a few weeks is difficult. So, to be sure of being along the Missouri River at the best time, a fisherman has to be prepared to drop everything and head to the river when the conditions are perfect.

"It's just a couple weeks," said Palmer. "In two or three weeks, it is all over. The young males will hang around for a while. But those giant females will come in first and they leave first."

Early on, when the water is at its coldest, Palmer recommended a quick-strike rig baited with smelt. This tends to be a game of extreme patience. The weather is often cold. The wind is usually blowing, and it might even be snowing as the cold gray waves lap up on the muddy brown vegetation along shore.

Fishermen will wait hours, and often days, for a single bite. The payoff to this kind of fishing is that when there is a bite, the odds of it being a trophy 20-plus-pound northern pike are very good. A fisherman can catch the fish of a lifetime pursuing these trophy fis


Bait seems to work best at attracting northerns very early. Smelt is the usual offering.

Once the water warms up in a week or so, Palmer will start casting lures, like a big Rapala or Dardevle.

On the retrieve, Palmer is all over the place. He'll cast and retrieve slowly and then go a little faster.

"But generally, when the water is cold, I keep it slow," he said. "With a couple days of sunshiny weather, it will warm it quickly."

Then Palmer will retrieve a little faster. And throw even more lures and spoons at the fish.

Much of this fishing is done from the shoreline. Palmer sometimes uses a boat to get to different locations on the lake, and get away from the hardest fished areas. But even then, he'll often beach the boat and fish from shore.

During this early spring warm-up, the other cool-water fish also become more active and the bite begins. Walleyes are, of course, the main fish to be found throughout the Dakotas.

They are numerous in Sakakawea, and anglers will begin catching them soon after the main northern pike push has let up.

Farther to the south, Palmer likes to hit Lake Sharpe for this early spring fishing. The walleyes there are quite eager this time of year. And there is always open water available somewhere below Oahe Dam.

"In Sharpe, they are all migrating up to around Pierre in the pre-spawn period," he said.

The same upward migration can also be seen in North Dakota as walleyes move up out of Lake Oahe and into the Missouri River up to Bismarck and beyond to Garrison Dam.

"Once again, you are playing with the weather," said Palmer. "They don't start to spawn until later on, but they are in a great pre-spawn bite."

Palmer fishes next to sandbars, the edges of swift current, behind structure when he can find it. He seeks out all of the holes and eddies in this more natural part of the river where there is still good current flow.

"It's just your classic springtime stuff," he said. "Lots of pitching a jig-and-minnow. It is a great bite around spring in Pierre. Lake Sharpe is really booming."

The lake has had four or five years of great spawns. The next two or three years "will be crazy," said Palmer.

"We have four year-classes coming up. I am really excited. With Lake Sharpe, I can't speak enough about that coming on," he said.

He also expects the Oahe fishery to be good, too.

"There are four or five or six different sizes of walleyes in Oahe," said Palmer. "It is the best I've seen since the mid-'90s. The boat traffic on the weekends reflects that. At the peak in June and July, there are 100 or 200 trailers at about every boat ramp. People are coming. They aren't making these big trips to Canada. They are coming here. The river is really kicking."

Those large numbers of walleyes and especially northern pike would not mean much if they didn't have lots of food to eat, and grow big on. Fortunately, that has been provided by the same high water and flooded vegetation. It has helped the baitfish.

Smelt are on the upswing in some places, especially in Oahe. In Sakakawea, the smelt haven't boomed, but other lesser-known baitfish have.

"The smelt have had a modest increase," said Fryda, with the NDGFD. "But it's nothing phenomenal."

Everything from spottail shiners to perch had a very good year, he said. "Things have turned the corner as far as health is concerned. "

Fryda said the perch spawn was also excellent, with the best year-class since 1997.

"We are starting the cycle all over again," he said. "The flooded vegetation and all. We've had good walleye reproduction. Nothing stellar, but good."

Farther down on Oahe and in the Missouri River near Bismarck, Fryda said the fishing this spring and throughout the season should be excellent.

"It has been in good shape," he said. "The walleye fishery below Garrison has been nothing short of phenomenal. There has been very good walleye reproduction. There are a lot of upper teens and lower-20-inch fish."

The only bleak spot on the horizon is for white bass. They suffered a bacterial infection that wiped out vast numbers of them last year.

"They took a very big hit," said Fryda. "They are a schooling type fish, so when there is an outbreak it spreads fast. Just like people in a small area, they get sick faster than if they are spread out."

The bacteria that killed the white bass are present in the Missouri River ecosystem all the time. When conditions are right, it causes the white bass problems. The last die-off was in 2004.

Fortunately, they are very prolific fish. They'll bounce back within the next few years.

Even now, anglers will catch lots of them this spring, said Palmer.

"We have world-class white bass fishing, and no one knows about it," he said. "The locals all look down on it, and they shouldn't. I have groups come every year just for white bass."

Finding fishing fanatics is no problem, though, for the early-spring northern bite. Anglers are willing to put in long hours and risk catching nothing, for the chance to take a lifetime trophy.

Palmer always warns his early-spring northern pike clients that they may catch nothing. He said there is a 50-50 chance of boating one.

"Northern fishing in spring is real popular here," he said, "and everybody knows the gig. It is a time thing. It might be two hours or 200 hours. But when you get one, it is huge."

That takes a special kind of fisherman, and indeed is exactly the opposite of late-spring white bass fishing where anglers can sometimes catch fish on consecutive casts. With northern pike, it's slow enough that you can really get to know and converse with your fishing companion.

"People who are into it are really dedicated," said Palmer. "It is not a numbers thing, it is a trophy thing. You can sit there for days, but when you get one, it is huge."

And then there are the trials and tribulations, as though the giant northerns lurking out there are deliberately taunting the angler. And perhaps they are.

"They will pick up that smelt and drop it," said Palmer. "It is real aggravating

. If it is steady, nice, sunshiny weather, then the bite will be better. But this time of year the fronts come through, and that shoves them back deep. If you can catch a few days of sunshiny weather, that is best."

Fishing, and waiting, and maybe landing a lunker is part of it.

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