Lakes and rivers in all four of our states can supply great angling for these marble-eyed game fish. But these spots might be a touch better than the rest. (May 2009)
All across the Great Plains this season, anglers are going to find consistently good walleye fishing. That's one of the common threads found in conversations I've had recently with biologists from the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.
Another common thread explains, at least in part, why the walleye action should continue to be so strong. All four states are seeing at least some easing of drought conditions that had lowered many impoundments throughout the region to extremely low levels.
In some familiar ways, history is repeating itself. Twenty years ago, much of this region was at least as dry as we've seen in recent fishing seasons. Lake levels dwindled, and more than a few fisheries got into pretty bad shape. The drought that began in 1988 lasted about five years. And when it eased, many waters across all four states were reborn.
Readers who remember those dynamics are about to start into them all over again. For the past few years, water levels have dropped to extremely low levels. Fishing has been tough, to say the least, and a lack of adequate habitat -- especially for forage species -- has stressed game fish species in all four states. Water returned last year, and many lakes refilled.
One element of that process will have the biggest impact this season, and for the next few -- presuming that water levels remain fairly normal. That is, newly flooded vegetation and habitat will jump-start the ecologies of many Great Plains fishing waters.
All that new flooded structure provides great habitat for forage species and young-of-the-year game fish. Survival rates improve because, frankly, those tiny fish have more places to hide from predators. Numbers increase, and before long, the game fish in lakes are finding smorgasbords of food where, for some time, the cupboard had been mostly bare.
Things will be better for walleye anglers this season, and they should continue to improve for the next few seasons. As suggested earlier, many impoundments around our four states are once again being reborn. Fishing for walleyes and other game fish will be strong this season, and should get stronger for at least a few seasons.
That last statement, of course, presumes that a "crystal ball" prediction of close-to-normal precipitation proves accurate. If lake levels stay at or near normal, angling action will be hot for the foreseeable future.
For right now, however, we're concerned with 2009. Here's a state-by-state look at this season's walleye fishing prospects across the Great Plains -- from south to north.
Kansas' western reservoirs suffered terribly in that drought during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of them have been suffering again, almost as badly. One, however, hasn't. State officials negotiated for and ultimately obtained the water rights for Cedar Bluff Reservoir years ago. As a result, its waters no longer provide irrigation. Thus, its level always is higher than its counterparts out west, which continue to irrigate surrounding acreage.
Without question, that's the main reason that Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologist Kyle Austin has so many nice things to say about this season's walleye prospects at Cedar Bluff, which has an 18-inch minimum "keeper" length in force.
"Cedar Bluff had really good numbers of walleyes heading into last season," he confirmed, "and there was a very light harvest. Because of that, our fall surveys revealed more than 40 percent of the walleyes in Cedar Bluff this season should be 18 inches or larger. And there's a pretty phenomenal number of 25-inch-plus walleyes there."
Cedar Bluff sounds as though it offers reason enough for anglers to visit western Kansas walleye spots, but Austin said there's much more to look forward to this season. "Kirwin, Webster and Norton reservoirs all are filling up," he explained, "and I believe the fishing in them will be outstanding."
He said fall surveys (2008) revealed good numbers of young-of-the-year fish. Anglers can expect them to reach 15 inches in two seasons (by 2010) and 18 inches a year after that. There should be plenty of keepers in all three lakes this season, but they'll be even better moving forward. Add Cedar Bluff's report to the mix, and it's definitely time to go west for walleyes in Kansas.
That doesn't mean you won't find good fishing elsewhere in the Sunflower State. Austin also mentioned Wilson, El Dorado, Hillsdale, Marion and even Cheney as lakes with good walleye prospects this season.
"The thing about Cheney is, we have a 21-inch minimum in effect there because we're trying to keep good numbers of big predators in the mix there to keep the white perch numbers down," Austin said. El Dorado, Hillsdale and Marion all have 18-inch minimums.
Austin tabbed El Dorado a "sleeper" among Kansas' walleye fisheries. Data suggest it will be at least as good as last season, if not better. He called Wilson a hotspot because it has lots of keepers. Wilson has a 15-inch minimum.
"Our walleyes provide a real bright spot for our fisheries in general," Austin said. "We have a number of lakes that will provide good fishing and some really nice fish this season."
Biologist Daryl Bauer provides a "voice of reason" when it comes to talking about the return of closer-to-normal water levels on Great Plains lakes that have been suffering from a drought for the past five to seven years.
"Our lakes have rebounded in 2007 and 2008 from the worst of the drought," Bauer said. "Lake McConaughy is still way low, but it's getting water.
"Initially, when the water comes back up, the fishing gets really tough," he continued. "Populations decline when water levels go down. When lakes return to normal, the fish that are left spread out. They're very hard to find that first season."
Bauer said walleyes, in particular, challenge anglers at times like this because they aren't nearly as connected to shallow-water structure as other species like bass, crappie and pike. "We definitely will see increased walleye recruitment right away," he added, "and that will pay dividends three to five years down the road.
At Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota, Gangl points to consistently strong natural walleye production as the key to that strong
"For now, anglers should know that the fish will be spread out, and they'll be well fed, naturally. Forage will increase right away, thanks to newly flooded cover, so there will be plenty for the walleyes and other species to eat."
He suggested that anglers target May and June as the times they can enjoy the most consistent walleye action in the Cornhusker State.
He also noted that, like Kansas, reservoirs in western Nebraska are used primarily for irrigation. Annual drawdowns affect each of them differently, and that can mean the rank in terms of best walleye prospects can change annually, too.
"Merritt Reservoir will stand out this season," Bauer said. "It has a very consistent supply of water. Lewis and Clarke, Calamus, Minatare and Sherman also will be good." Bauer again mentioned McConaughy, but also noted it's been roughly 30 feet low for the past decade.
He noted that Nebraska stocks walleyes in smaller reservoirs around the state, although anglers shouldn't expect the fishing to be as good as it will be in the larger impoundments pointed out earlier.
He mentioned Willow Creek in northeast Nebraska as a smaller lake with good walleye prospects this season, and filled out the list with Summit, north of Omaha; Yankee Hill, near Denton; and Stagecoach, south of Lincoln.
Bauer noted that many reservoirs in central and eastern Nebraska are in place for flood control, which means their levels generally stay higher than the irrigation lakes out west, even during drought years.
"I believe that, overall, our walleye fishing prospects are going to be good again this year," he said. "We have plenty of fish, and the reservoirs out west are really bouncing back. That's good news for all the game fish, including walleyes."
The lead news story here sounds familiar: "Our western reservoirs started getting good rain last summer," said South Dakota's John Lott. "The return to near-normal water levels means there is a lot of freshly flooded vegetation in many places, and that will improve lake productivity immediately."
Of course, Lake Oahe really is the walleye calling card in South Dakota, and Lott said last year's rains helped it, too. "Oahe is in very good shape heading into this season compared to the past few years," he noted.
Lott pointed out that the best walleye bites on Oahe happen from May into July. They start at the upper end of the impoundment in May and continue to move downstream through June and into July. "Oahe should be very good this season," he said.
The western reservoirs likely will be much like those to the south in Nebraska and Kansas. That is, fish will spread out, and they'll be well fed. As a result, they are likely to be tough to find and catch. However, anglers who can put things together should expect to catch healthy walleyes of good size.
Eastern South Dakota offers some good options too, according to Lott. He mentioned Bitter Lake, Waubay and Blue Dog in the northeastern region, and Thompson and Sinai in the southeast. In general, he said, anglers should expect the best walleye action in May and June.
Lott said many lakes around the state are experiencing good natural production, but there still are waters in South Dakota that get stocked. "There are some waters in the state that we don't need to stock at all," he explained. "Others require periodic stocking to help maintain their populations, and some are stocked annually because they just don't have natural production to speak of."
When it comes to trophy potential, Lott said there are impoundments in the East River region that are managed for size and, as a result, offer good prospects for truly large walleyes. Logic dictates that we include Lake Oahe, too, because of its sheer size and numbers. The good news also can be bad news for anglers looking specifically for trophy walleyes because those fish can be hard to pinpoint on such a large reservoir.
"Oahe's trophy potential is starting to get back to where it was before we experienced a downturn about 10 years ago," Lott said. "Anglers will find that the South Dakota lakes with more-established walleye fisheries have the potential for producing trophy fish this season."
If Lott is right about Oahe being very good this season, then North Dakotans are in for some hot Oahe walleye action, too. As I was researching and writing this story, Oahe was backed up roughly 30 miles into North Dakota. That says a lot about how water levels have rebounded throughout the Great Plains.
Nebraska stocks walleyes in smaller reservoirs around the state, although anglers shouldn't expect the fishing to be as good as it will be in the larger impoundments.
"Oahe was the first lake to crash, several years ago," said North Dakota biologist Scott Gangl. "The walleyes we see in it now are plump and beautiful. We had a great spring bite last year, but the fall bite wasn't so good. As a result, we're coming into the season with walleyes that we know were full of fat last fall."
Lake Sakakawea, however, is another story.
"Sakakawea is still suffering from a lack of forage base," Gangl said. Rainbow smelt have yet to rebound, but he and others are optimistic now that water levels are getting back to normal throughout the state's biggest systems.
"The walleye population in Sakakawea has been down for a few seasons as a result of all this, and the remaining big walleyes are pretty skinny," Gangl said. "We're seeing a lot of young fish in the 12- to 14-inch range, which suggests that production in 2005 and 2006 was good."
At Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota, Gangl points to consistently strong natural walleye production as the key to that strong fishery. "We have good numbers of walleyes in Devils Lake, and they're plump and healthy," he said.
"Gangl also suggested that North Dakota anglers talk to fisheries biologists in their home areas to learn about local lakes that might be setting up for some great action this season. His comments suggest some dynamic fisheries around the state.
"It's cyclical for our smaller lakes," he said. "It's difficult to predict when and where the walleye fishing is going to turn on, but there is that potential in a lot of our smaller lakes."
He pointed to fathead minnows and yellow perch -- both great walleye forage -- as keys to lakes that might turn on. It doesn't quite work how you might expect, however.
Fathead minnows, for example, are very prolific. In years when a given lake has high numbers, its resident walleyes are eating well and can become more di
fficult to catch because of all the forage at their disposal.
Lakes where production might dip make for another story, however. When walleyes don't have so much to eat, they're going to be more aggressive, and that makes for good fishing action. "As I said, we have potential for good walleye fishing in our smaller lakes statewide," Gangl reiterated. "If folks want to try, they should talk to our local fisheries biologists about where the bite might turn on this season."
Gangl mentioned Jamestown Reservoir as a good bet this season for eating-sized walleyes. "Most of the fish you'll catch there will be in the 14-inch range," he said, "which is perfect eating size for walleyes. Jamestown is consistent in that regard."
He also mentioned Lake Darling, northwest of Minot, and Lake Audubon. The latter feeds a canal system that, Gangl said, had been home to lots of little walleyes. "We are seeing a strong forage base of Cisco," he said, "and the walleye size structure is improving as a result. Fishing there is going to be good for better-than-average walleyes."
If you're looking for a good bet in southwestern North Dakota, Gangl called Heart Butte (Lake Tschida) a "gem in the region." He noted that the walleye bite is seasonal, but its peak ought to be happening about now -- or getting ready to happen.
He also mentioned Dickinson Reservoir as an up-and-coming walleye fishery. "Dickinson had a hot bite for the first time last year," he said. The potential appears to be there for another good bite this season.
THE HIGHWAY 83 FACTOR
When reviewing walleye prospects in the Great Plains this season and looking at maps of the four states we included here, U.S. Highway 83 appears to be significant. As you travel north to south, it may be a bit too far east in some areas to consider a true "drought boundary."
But the fact remains that west of U.S. 83 across the Great Plains, lakes and fisheries are rebounding from the impact of several consecutive drought years. Walleyes will benefit from the improvement in the collective forage base of lakes west of U.S. 83 in all four states. Walleye fishing will be good this season, and it'll keep getting better if the drought doesn't find its way back in a hurry.
East of U.S. 83, from Kansas north to North Dakota's border with Canada, the entire region is home to lakes that have provided consistent walleye fishing and appear to be poised to do so again this season.
The outlook for Plains walleyes, in fact, is . . . great!