Spring has arrived, and with it rewarding walleye fishing --
at these waters especially.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
There's no time like April in the Dakotas. The ice that once blanketed our waters has all but faded, and the walleye fishing gets into full swing. The spring walleye bite in the Dakotas historically provides the best action of the year, and April's the month that gets things started.
It's a special time of year on the Plains, and everyone is busy getting ready for the season that is upon us. I remember years ago when my dad and brother stewed over the spring tackle catalogs like Sunday bibles, marking every other page and accumulating another year's worth of treasures. Naturally, 99 percent of the spring's walleyes were taken on jigs and live-bait rigs, but the flash of the year's new "secret weapon" and another bottle of deadly walleye scent somehow managed to find its way into our tackle boxes each spring.
We've certainly seen our share of ups and downs on our favorite walleye waters the past few years, but by the looks of the boats running down the highway lately, I'm not the only one anxious to wet a line.
Fishing the Dakotas in April usually means clear water and spooky walleyes. The month is one of extremes when it comes to Mother Nature, and she usually dictates our fishing activity. Two of my best outings last spring were on days when I should have stayed in bed. One was a day in late April fishing with my brother Dale and battling high waves. We were pulling small plugs five miles South of Chamberlain, SD, on Lake Francis Case. Though the water was rough, we were pulling in walleyes left and right -- and were too stubborn to quit. The fish weren't giants, ranging from 16 to 21 inches, but boy did we have a ball!
The other was a cold, rainy spring day jigging on Sakakawea's Van Hook Arm. The harder the rain, the bigger the fish.
While memories are great, the promise of the upcoming season is even better. By looking at current water conditions and using last year's action as a barometer, several fisheries seem to stand out and are our top picks for this month's walleye bite. Here's a look at what the Dakotas will have to offer this month.
In South Dakota, there are many small lakes in the northeast part of the state that host some tremendous fishing each spring. The town of Webster lies in the heart of these small lakes and is headquarters to some of the best walleye fishing the state has to offer. Within a 30-minute drive of the town lie 15 productive lakes, any of which can shine like the sun on any given day. Of course, Waubay Lake is king when it comes to walleye fishing and garners the most attention.
Veteran angler Cory Fields of Webster who guides on massive Waubay with partner Jason Coaster says the lake is still full of walleyes.
"Depending on ice-out and weather conditions, this is usually a good time of year to hit the lake," says Fields. "The system has a lot of fish in the 14- to 16-inch range, but hosts bigger fish, as well, in the 26- to 28-inch range. Every time you think the big guys have been thinned, they go on a bite again and spring is always a good time of year to land a big fish."
With a current predator-to-prey imbalance that has only improved slightly over the past year, the walleyes in Waubay should be very active this spring and a lot of fish will be coming from the flooded timber and shallow flats.
"Spring walleyes are the easiest to pattern on the lake." Fields remarked. "I can usually work a pocket of fish for several days by making small moves. They like shallow water this time of year and spread out on the flats, islands, timber, and rocky points. Catching spring walleyes on the lake is easy, but you have to work for the better fish."
Fields said there is no big secret to catching pre-spawn walleyes on the lake; everyone can enjoy good action. "Typical spring techniques work best; if you don't find fish within a half-hour, it's time to relocate," he says.
While Waubay takes top honors, lakes like Swan, Cattail, Bitter and Lynn in the Webster area will also see great action over the next month. Stop by the Sportsman's Cove in Webster and talk to Doug Johnson to get the latest scoop on the bite.
It's hard to discuss April walleye fishing in the state without also looking at the Missouri River. While each reservoir will take center stage at some point in the season, my top pick for this month is Lake Francis Case.
April is a month of transition on the lake. The beginning of the month is generally reserved for a tailrace and upper-lake bite, using jigs or live bait. The presentation is slow and slower in the clear, cold water. By month's end however, everything goes -- the tailrace is on fire, live-bait fishing is filling livewells, throughout the reservoir, and crankbait action has exploded in the middle of the lake.
While April was a very productive month on the lake last year, the action quickly simmered and wasn't quite up to par by summer's end. John Lott, fisheries biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game Fish and Parks points to an increase in pressure, poor spawning conditions, and a general reduction in walleye numbers as the problem.
"The walleye harvest on the lake has been exceeding goals for a couple of years," Lott explains. "And with limited spawning success we needed to look at options to prevent any further problems."
Last year, the daily limit was reduced from four walleyes to three, and Lott says that, overall, anglers welcomed the new regulations. "Most anglers saw a need to maintain the fishery and we had very few negative remarks about the changes."
Starting at the headwaters of the reservoir at the Big Bend Dam and working downstream, let's take a look at the lake.
The fast water in the tailrace below the dam started producing fish back in March, and by mid-month will be a shore-fisherman's bonanza. Spawning walleyes stage along the riprap there by the score. By using light jigs and shallow-running plugs and fishing them on into the night, anglers can take home easy limits, if the current conditions are favorable.
Farther downstream along the Kiowa flats and Crow Creek, anglers jigging and live-baiting have seen a good bite as well. The area sees a lot of attention, and the fish are very spooky. By making small moves away from the crowd, savvy anglers can find a good bite.
Next in line lies the Chamberlain area with its miles of riprap-lined banks. It eats a lot of tackle,
but these rocks are home to scores of bread-and-butter-sized fish. It's a jig angler's paradise.
By month's end, anglers pulling small plugs on leadcore line south of Chamberlain along Carpenters Bluffs and past the White River to Boyers, are taking limits of fish. Try pulling small, bright plugs in the 15- to 18-foot depth range and you won't be disappointed.
When it comes to producing big walleyes this spring, top honors will go to Roy Lake. Jan Thames at Roy Lake Resort and Cabins says this should be a great spring on the lake.
"A lot of very big walleyes came out of the lake last year and that pattern should hold for the spring bite," says Thames. "We saw a lot of 8-, 9- and 10-pound-class fish -- and if people take care of the fishery, we should have a good run on the lake." Again, jigs and live-bait rigs will take the majority of Roy Lake's walleyes this spring.
In North Dakota, anglers are also getting ready to hit the water this month. Ice-out occurs later in this neck of the woods, but by now, anglers are getting restless and are ready to hit the water.
Devils Lake has swelled to 145,000 acres and fishing just keeps getting better and better. "This is going to be a fantastic spring on Devils Lake," says Kyle Blanchfield owner of Woodland Resort. "Fishing has been great for a few years now and we expect that to continue. Because of the high water, the lake has produced a lot of walleyes over the past few years and there is a ton of good walleyes in the system right now.
"While each walleye fishery in the Dakotas will face its own challenges and rewards during the upcoming season, I can't think of a better place to be on a sunny April day than on the boat with a light wind at my back while I'm looking for the Big One."
"The fish are looking for spawning areas and stage along the rocky points, sunken islands, flats, coulees, and submerged timber at this time of year," explains Blanchfield. "The guys use a lot of jigs and live-bait rigs on light line early in the season, and then switch to plugs and bottom-bouncers once the water has warmed. Weather also dictates how and where you fish at this time of year, but the fish are pretty cooperative."
And what Blanchfield calls "cooperative" is more than just a meager bite. Devils Lake has not only produced scores of walleyes over the past few years, but also has been the No. 1 producer of trophy fish in the state. Blanchfield says that while the spring bite consists of a lot of average walleyes, now is also one of the best times to tie into one of those trophy walleyes -- generally considered to be a fish over 8 pounds.
No matter how you like to fish, Devils Lake will produce walleyes at this time of year. "That's part of the fun here," Blanchfield adds. "One day you're drifting the flats or sitting on top of a submerged rockpile, and the next day you're pitching jigs into flooded timber or slip-bobbering. Fishing is just amazing right now, and we just want to get the word out so that everyone can enjoy the lake while it is at its peak."
Because of weather conditions, fishing on North Dakota's portion of the Missouri River usually falls about a month behind that at South Dakota reservoirs. Although it will be another month before fishing really erupts on Lake Sakakawea, the walleye action below the Garrison Dam is the first to heat up.
A tremendous number of walleyes stage in the area below the dam at this time of year. They've been moving up the system to spawn. They really stack up between the dam and the tributaries and make for some pretty easy pickings.
The portion of river between Bismarck and the dam hosts a lot of walleyes, but they tend to be bread-and-butter fish in the 14- to 18-inch range.
The majority of the tailrace walleyes that stage below Garrison in April move up from Lake Oahe, and that system has seen good improvements in the quality of its fish the past two years, so North Dakota anglers should see those results in their creels as well.
The river portion below Garrison is a jig-fisherman's paradise -- find the current breaks and you'll find fish. The walleyes are very current orientated and tend to bite best with moderate current. A lack of current shuts the bite off like a switch, and while any current break will hold fish, sandbars are the main focus. The fish are very spooky in the clear water and light line and light jigs work best. Let the current release from the dam dictate the size of jig used
By month's end, fishing from shore will be hot on Garrison's tailrace. Many times, shore anglers will actually outdo their counterparts in boats. Like any tailrace fishery, the first couple of hours after dark are prime time for fishing as the walleyes move very shallow. Casting plugs along the shoreline and working them back against the current is a great way to take fish.
Although it may be a while before anglers are able to access Lake Sakakawea, depending on weather conditions and ice-out, anglers should expect another productive year on the big lake. The No. 1 concern will be water levels and the problems associated with them.
"Access is top priority," says Terry Steinwand, North Dakota's Fisheries Chief. "We have made some gains, but we need a good shot of water in the system to help with access as well as protect our spawning game fish and forage."
A lot of quality walleyes were taken out of the system the past two years, and it should be a very good spring on the lake. Last year, fishing was better than expected and the fish were fat and healthy. The walleyes have been crowded to some extent by the lower water levels, and they have put a dent in the available forage, leaving a lot of fish looking for an easy meal.
"We should see a good spring on the lake," says Steinwand. "But there is concern for the latter part of the year and beyond if we do not get some water back into the system."
Walleyes have been stocked in a number of locations on the system because of poor spawning results, but the stockers can't hold a candle to the real thing. A declining smelt population is also of concern to officials. While this is going to be a great spring on the lake, every problem or concern from here on can be remedied by a surplus of moisture coming into the system.
Last year, fishing pressure on the big lake was down from 20 to 30 percent. That was primarily due to negative press on the low water conditions and assumptions made about access. The state does a great job of providing boat access and there is still a lot of water out there. Many anglers thought last year was one of the best on Sakakawea. This year's fishing should follow along those same lines.
The walleye is king when it comes to fishing in the Dakotas, and as we enter into the first inning of the season that is upon us, there will be triumphs in one fishery and concerns in the next. As fisheries like Waubay and Devils Lake swell with water,
their counterparts along the Missouri River lie begging for water, reinforcing the diversity of the Plains.
While each walleye fishery in the Dakotas will face its own challenges and rewards during the upcoming season, I can't think of a better place to be on a sunny April day than on the boat with a light wind at my back while I'm looking for the Big One. See you on the water!