Eyes On North Dakota

Eyes On North Dakota

If you want to catch walleyes this month, keep your eyes on the action at these two North Dakota hotspots. (April 2006)

"This is the month when things get started," said Jeff Hendrickson, fisheries biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "Ice-out can differ by several weeks in North Dakota, depending on the weather and severity of the preceding winter, but April seems to be the month when the bulk of the anglers get back onto the water and start looking for spring walleyes."

Anglers hitting the water this month must prepare for any conditions that Mother Nature can throw at them, as April is a month of extreme contrasts. By looking at current water conditions, and using last year's action as a barometer, you'll find that a couple of fisheries seem to stand out as qualifying as our top picks for this month's walleye bite.

Coming off of yet another record year, Devils Lake takes top billing as this month's walleye hotspot, and will probably yield more April walleyes than all other North Dakota fisheries combined. It's no secret that Devils Lake is king when it comes to catching spring walleyes -- and this could be the best bite yet.

"I have been at the lake for over 18 years, and it just keeps getting better," said Kyle Blanchfield, owner of the Woodland Resort. "I seem to say that every year, but the lake never lets me down. Just imagine a lake this size that has had new vegetation cover for nine consecutive years!"

Many fisheries are lucky to have a few strong year-classes of walleyes, but Devils Lake has so many that it's hard to pinpoint any particular year as the best. "We have a ton of fish of all sizes in the system," remarked Blanchfield. "I can't imagine fishing getting any better than this. A lot of anglers actually get bored with catching walleyes and try different tactics and off-the-wall techniques just to throw a little excitement into the game."

In April, the lake's walleyes seek spawning areas and stage along the rocky points, sunken islands, flats, roadbeds, and submerged timber this time of year. "We do not have a lot of structure in the lake other than about 2 million submerged trees, and the fish will hold to what is available -- no matter how insignificant it can appear at first glance," said Blanchfield. "The guys use a lot of jigs and live-bait rigs this time of year, which is pretty standard anywhere on the lake. Weather and wind dictates how and where to fish, but the fish are pretty cooperative."

And what Blanchfield calls "cooperative" constitutes more than just a meager bite: The lake has produced a ton of walleyes over the past several seasons. Although the greatest part of the spring bite consists of bread-and-butter fish, now is also one of the best times to tie into one of those trophy walleyes -- a "trophy" here being generally considered to be a fish over 8 pounds.

There are no big secrets to catching fish this time of year, and almost everyone is having success, according to Blanchfield. "No matter how you like to fish, Devils Lake will produce walleyes," he said. "That's part of the fun here. One day you're drifting or pitching jigs, and the next day you're fishing vertical, or slip-bobbering. It is a lot of fun right now, and I just can't imagine a better place to be this month than on Devils Lake."

Whether you're a Devils Lake veteran or someone who has always dreamed of fishing the lake, this is going to be a year to remember. "The word is out on the lake's good bite," said Blanchfield. "But this is a huge body of water with plenty of room for everyone -- and a hungry walleye as well."

Depending on weather conditions in April, fishing on North Dakota's portion of the Missouri River below the Garrison Dam can be worthwhile as well. Every fall, the walleyes in this portion of the river push upstream -- and when they hit the cement wall of the Garrison Dam, their journey's over. They stack up in the area and then, after a time, tend to move back downstream to spawn. After spawning, they return to the tailrace and put on the feedbag -- much to the delight of waiting anglers! A decade ago, that magical date usually occurred sometime in May, but with the mild weather we've witnessed the past few years, that date has been pushed back earlier.

"Weather dictates the whole process," explained Hendrickson. "There can be a big change in Garrison's April bite from the beginning of the month to month's end, and the fishing will get better as spring progresses."

The river portion below Garrison is a jig-fisherman's paradise -- find the current breaks, and you'll find the fish. Concentrate on fishing any area in which the current changes. The walleyes are very current-oriented and tend to bite best with a moderate current. A lack of flow can shut off the bite like a switch, but when the dam fires back up, it's just like ringing the dinner bell.

While any current break will hold fish, sandbars are the main focus. The bigger fish hang out at the edge of the current, where it takes less energy for them to hold in place, and ambush any forage or baitfish coming through the dam. Let the current release from the dam dictate the size of jig you use; go as light as possible, while still using something heavy enough to do the job.

The bulk of the walleyes will typically range from 16 to 21 inches, but those numbers are expected to increase this year. Hendrickson reports another strong spawn last year and says that with improvements in Lake Oahe walleyes, anglers should expect a good bite this spring.

By month's end, shore-anglers will take center stage; as at all tailrace fisheries, the first two hours after dark will be prime time for catching active walleyes here. Cast shallow-running crankbaits along the shoreline, working back against the current.

"Tailraces are amazing -- a unique fishery all by themselves," noted Hendrickson. "There is really a smorgasbord of forage floating at fins length on a daily basis, and the fish can grow at amazing rates. While many of our fish move throughout the system, some of Garrison's fish are yearly residents, and are as fat as footballs."

Generally when you think of river fish, you think of a fish that has to expend a lot of energy to hold in the current. They tend to be lighter than their counterparts in the main reservoirs, but many tailrace fish have a knack of finding those breaks and edges, and can really put on the weight. All of our trout and salmon state-record fish come from the Garrison tailrace, and Hendrickson wouldn't be surprised at all to see a record walleye emerging soon.

Last fall, the record mark of 15 pounds, 12 ounces, set in 1959, was in jeopardy when Craig Thornby of Church's Ferry hauled in a giant walleye from the tailrace. Thornby was fishing from shore below the r

ocks at the tailrace on Sept. 24 when he caught the big 'eye. At the time, Thornby's digital scale produced a reading of 14.7 pounds, but the fish officially went into the record book at 13.97 pounds. (Speculation on the potential weight of the fish had it been caught in April when full of eggs was rife, but those stories were just -- well '¦ fish stories.)

"A walleye has the potential to have egg mass equal to 15 percent of its total weight," explained Hendrickson. "So while the fish could have been a potential new state record had it been taken this month, the reports of a possible 17-pound walleye were a little generous."

Regardless, the big catch shows all the anglers who'll fish the tailrace this month just what they've always known: The next cast may be the one to bring a fish that will go into the book.

"That's the beauty of the Garrison tailrace," said Hendrickson. "You never know what you're going to catch. It's an amazing place."

This is the month when it all begins -- and if you're like me, you've been waiting for the April bite since we put the boat away last fall. I always have my ears open for a hot bite, but if you get lucky and draw just the right cards, these two fisheries will be on top when it comes to putting walleyes on the stringer this month.

See you on the water!

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