You'd have to look long and hard to find better walleye fishing than what's available at these great locations across the Great Plains. (May 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
In the course of my search for the year's best walleye fishing hotspots in the Great Plains, I've had the opportunity to talk to some of the most informative and pleasant people in the region's four states. Highly knowledgeable about this part of the country's various lakes, they wanted nothing more than to help put a few more people on the water this season.
The following, I think, will do just that. Does the Great Plains' walleye fishing rank with the best in the country? Just ask the people who know the area best.
"I've been saying this for I don't know how many years now," said Daryl Bauer of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "Lake McConaughy is once again going to be one of Nebraska's best walleye fisheries. (It)'s going to be good despite low water levels."
Behind Merritt, McConaughy has one of the highest concentrations of big walleyes in the state, and had the largest population of walleyes above 25 inches surveyed during the fall of 2006.
With a forage base of alewives and shad, this lake with more than 100 miles of shoreline has what shapes Nebraska's best walleye fisheries: big water. And McConaughy has flourished under a stocking program that the NGPC has conducted for years.
However, this long-celebrated hotspot isn't Nebraska's only walleye haven. At the top of the 2006 sampling data for both numbers of walleyes and walleyes between 20 and 25 inches is Merritt Reservoir. Plus, the lake has something going for it that many lakes in the region can't brag about: Despite how far it's pulled down during extreme drought, Merritt fills up with water every year.
"It's got something to do with stability," offered Bauer. "Each year you know what to expect at Merritt."
Make an effort to adapt to the lake when you're fishing it. A higher alewife population will push the fish in different directions. Be ready to change patterns when your usual strategies aren't working.
As far as things that are usual go, walleye fishing at Cedar Bluff Reservoir provides a couple of consistent clues to knowing when to fish the lake: When crappie numbers are low, walleye numbers are high -- and big walleyes love little crappie, while big crappie love little walleyes. Another thing to know: Cedar Bluff's rating for trophy fish is one of the highest in Kansas. Big fish can be found in nearly all the coves on the lake. (Continued)
"Church Camp Cove is one of those coves," said Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologist Lynn Davignon. "Fish the secondary points in this cove from 4 to 12 feet of water."
Anglers also can find fish in the largest cove on the lake, Page Cove. At its mouth there is 30 feet of water, and its structure opportunities are quite diverse. Old Page Creek channel runs through it, giving a deep-water option, along with the timberlines on each side of the creek channel.
The best fishing techniques vary throughout the year. Around Mother's Day the fish are very active. This year, a 4-year-class of walleyes that hit the 18-inch minimum last year should be very impressive. Since gizzard shad are the forage fish, anglers should attack areas with exposed trees by trolling jointed Shad Raps and jig-tipping with minnows.
And if you can stay out of the woods long enough to fish this fall, more big fish can be found on the lake by trolling. Plus, the lake is a ghost town at that time of the year. "If we have five or six boats a day in September and October walleye fishing, it's a busy day," said Davignon, who added one last thing to remember when at Cedar Bluff: "The key for any walleye angler at any reservoir is their depthfinder."
I'm as excited about Kansas' next lake, Cheney, as I am about any lake in this list. Why? Sheer logic. More than two miles of dam area is available to fish in the spring on this 9,500-acre lake. This is where most people congregate on the water, many fishing up to 25 feet deep with Rat-L-Traps and Rapalas.
"There's a lot of pressure on the lake," said Cheney State Park ranger Jake Hunninghake, who spoke of boats on that western end as far as a person could see.
What do a 21-inch minimum-length limit and a two-walleye daily limit tell me? That, with all those anglers and those limits, big fish swim that lake, and that walleye fans are willing to take home slightly fewer fish to have an opportunity at catching a lunker.
People troll more during the summer months, working off the rock points using shad-colored lures -- silver, gray, and white. On that end of the lake, the wind usually blows from the northwest directly into the dam, creating a whirlwind of baitfish for the walleyes and for the anglers who pile up to search for big fish.
On looking at Devils Lake in North Dakota, finding and catching big fish is not the principal thought that comes to mind. I mean, people talk about that, of course, but the words "big lake" seem to roll off the tongue a bit more often these days -- because right now, the lake's at or near an all-time high.
Over the last decade and a half, the Devils Lake area of North Dakota has had very wet conditions that have caused the lake to triple its size. Now, the lake has increased to 145,000 acres, up from the 30,000 acres it was during the early 1990s.
At the top of the 2006 sampling data for both numbers of walleyes and walleyes between 20 and 25 inches is Merritt Reservoir.
Every year, new cover and structure make the lake vastly different from the year before. Newly flooded trees, weedbeds and roadbeds are at this lake, plus a long list of other cover possibilities. These roadbeds and driveways, for example, offer the perfect combination of hard, graveled surfaces surrounded by looser, soft surroundings.
Because the size of Devils Lake has tripled, the lake has taken over many of the surrounding water bodies, including Pelican Lake. These waterways and the entrances to the older lake will be some of the most popular spots to fish Devils throughout the year, owing to the combination of shallow and deep water.
Most of the fishing pressure that comes to Devils Lake occurs in June, but June also offers some of the most consistent fishing at the lake. In the shallow areas throughout the lake, fish can be found in less than 8 f
eet of water.
Timber areas are solid producers because of the warmth that the timber gives off into the surrounding water. The biggest challenge with the lake is the amount of new water that it has. But this also comes with many advantages. Anglers can access these areas from a large boat, or even their 16-foot johnboats. A few anglers take advantage of this new wealth of cover by wading.
One of the most popular methods of fishing the lake involves casting crankbaits toward weedy areas and shallows. Anglers should look for new areas, new parts of the lake.
"Last year, I spent three weeks fishing in New Mill Bay at Devils Lake along the same weedline every day, and never had a problem catching fish," said guide Johnnie Candle. "And I had never even fished that area before."
In the early spring, walleyes at Devils are going to be concentrated on shallow shorelines, especially gravel areas, during the spawn and shortly thereafter. Fish the edges of the road and highway systems, because several roads have been abandoned for travel since the lake has risen so much.
Cast minnows, ThunderSticks, and Shad Raps in 2 to 6 feet of water. During this part of the year, walleye fishing is very similar to bass fishing. When fish are being difficult on some days, work soft plastics, jigging with twistertails.
During the post-spawn, which usually occurs in mid to late May, the fish will leave clean banks for flooded timber. Find them in the flooded timber with minnows and crawlers, just as if you were crappie fishing. In the state of North Dakota, anglers are allowed two rods per fisherman.
The fish start to move into the weedy edges during the summer. Look for dense weedbeds on calm edges. "I find a lot of fish when the lake is calm and the sun is up," said Candle, "when finding those weedy edges is a bit easier. You spend a lot less time picking out weeds when the conditions are like this. I also look for a broadleaf vegetation versus anything with small reeds."
From the middle of the summer, starting in July and into August, go back to the main lake within the original lake boundaries before the flooding occurred. What was left at the flood was a very defined transition line in between the original water level and what is now the new water. Candle recommended fishing the deep dropoffs; he fishes in some over 28 feet deep, and concentrates on those edges with crankbaits and spinners.
As far as the size of fish goes, Devils Lake is no lunker walleye hotspot. Instead, it's going to provide top-quality fish, and a lot of them. The average fish is going to be in the 18- to 23-inch range, with only a few fish in the 10-pound range being caught a summer. It's one of the area's best lakes for catching a large number of excellent fish in a day, and with the amount of variety that it offers, it's also a lake that can fish as if it were several different lakes during a single year.
Another hot lake in North Dakota, Sakakawea, seems to be the polar opposite of Devils Lake. Sakakawea, a reservoir on the Missouri River system, is facing record-low water levels. But in a way, that situation has helped the lake. The fish are more concentrated on conventional holding structure, as opposed to being spread throughout the various sections as are the walleyes at Devils Lake.
During the spring, spawning occurs toward the extreme upstream end of the reservoir and at the backs of the bays on that end of the lake. With the fish also come many anglers taking advantage of this spring bite in the most productive areas such as the Van Hook arm. Usually by the middle of June, however, the fish have moved out into parts of the main lake.
"What I've seen in the last couple of years since the water has been so down," said Candle, "is that the fish leave the bays sooner into the main lake, because it warms up much quicker now."
On the main lake, use bottom-bouncers and spinners on key points and sharp dropoffs, and work on the rocky bottom as opposed to some of the areas that have muddy bottoms. This lake's forage fish are smelt, so in the heat of the summer look for clouds of baitfish on your depthfinder. If you're proficient with a depthfinder, the balls of fish should be easy to find. The walleyes won't be far from the baitfish. When the water begins to rise, pay attention to the major creek arms. Fish the shallow-water areas with live bait.
As for which lake to fish right now, Candle chooses Devils Lake. "It just offers so many more challenges to fish," he says. "There are so many walleye-catching opportunities it has."
If you're looking for the same trip (and some of us are!), look to Sakakawea. Contact Candle's Guide Service at (701) 371-9431 for additional information regarding planning a walleye trip on either of these two North Dakota honeyholes.
Want to catch walleyes in South Dakota? Be aware that there's no letup. Switch gears from high numbers to high concentrations of good average-sized fish. A very good walleye lake, Francis Case, offers anglers a number of fine choices during the year. During April, anglers use jig-and-minnow and Lindy rigs, switching from these to bottom-bouncers and spinners along with night crawlers in May. With gizzard shad and smelt as forage fish, anglers have a couple of different "hatches" to match.
Anglers should work the shale banks along the White River and the dropoffs leading to the river. Concentrate on Crow Creek north of Chamberlain by working off channel breaks and flats. One last thing: Because Francis Case is ordinarily a shallow reservoir, move to the deeper Lake Sharpe as the summer draws on. Search for walleyes there on edges near dropoffs and tree stumps.
The last spot on the list takes us to mighty Lake Oahe, whose anglers can expect the typical fish to range from 2 to 5 pounds. The good bite starts the last two weeks in May and runs through the prime months of June and July. During the post-spawn period, concentrate on Whitlock's Bay. As the summer goes on, fish move toward Bush's Landing, Sutton's Bay and the Cheyenne River.
"Fish a variety of depths," advised Oahe fishing guide Andre Adams, who primarily uses live-bait techniques including bottom-bouncing with crawlers and minnows.
At Oahe, fish can be found off the mouths of bays; by July, look for walleye in 20 to 30 feet of water near humps and changing depths. If it's bright outside, go deeper; if it's more overcast, work shallower.
As far as lure colors are concerned, the primary forage fish are shad and flathead minnows, which spawn in the spring and in August on the lake. Follow these balls of fish during the summer to find 'eyes.
"I expect a repeat of the 2006 year," said Adams, "I fished all but three days in June last year, and the average fish were between 18 and 25 inches. We had our limits by noon each day."
Limits by noon. Not a bad way to start -- or to finish -- the
day, is it?
* * *
What anglers have available to them in this article is a roster of some of the best hotspots in the Great Plains, on which appears an unparalleled variety of types of water to fish. It's never my desire to tell about the same type of fishing over a number of lakes, and this list certainly avoids that pitfall. From fishing creeks and weedbeds to dropoffs and edges, walleye chasers have a very good list of fishing locations at which to start their walleye fishing this year.
And start they should, for right now they're missing out on fish somewhere. They really needn't worry, though. There are plenty of walleyes to go around -- all year long!
Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com