June is probably one of the best months of the year to be a walleye angler on Lake Oahe. Here's why. (June 2006)
Like most other anglers in South Dakota, I spend more time chasing walleyes than what I devote to all other species combined -- and then some.
Back in the 1980s and mid-'90s I spent many a summer's day either chasing eyes on Lake Oahe or dreaming of doing so. Hardly a week went by without my putting the boat in somewhere on the reservoir, and more than once a week when the big June bite was on.
Of course, the good old days crashed when high water levels flushed out the forage and the whole predator-prey situation got out of whack in the late '90s; you know the story. After the crash, I looked to other waters to fill my appetite for catching walleyes. Although I enjoyed fishing new water, and had a lot of success in certain areas, I never met with the consistency I'd enjoyed at Lake Oahe when it was in its prime.
A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine tried to convince me that Oahe was getting back to normal and again deserved my attention. Because a few of my favorite lakes in the northeast part of the state had started to slip and the lower Missouri River reservoirs were succumbing to a constant barrage of pressure, that came as great news, and I started to look at Oahe once again.
I had a fair season two years ago, catching good-looking walleyes that resembled somewhat the fish of old -- fat as footballs and equally tough. Last year that bite took a big step forward, and on certain days in late June, we absolutely hammered the 'eyes in true Oahe fashion. No, it wasn't like the old days: no trophies, no limits of 5-pound walleyes -- just oodles of chunky walleyes into the 3-pound range, and an occasional larger fish.
I don't keep any of the fish I catch. Not that I think that anything's wrong with taking a couple of fish home for the table -- it's just that I'm one of the few Dakotans who just plain can't stand the taste of them.
But, oh, do I love to catch those fish! And for a couple of weeks last June I thought I was in heaven. The June walleye bite on Oahe was no secret last year, and everyone I know is looking forward to the frenzy that's all but upon us again this year.
I remember waiting last year for the local Thursday fishing report on the Watertown radio station, looking for some indication the bite was on. Once I found the bite, of course, I -- like any true fisherman -- was wishing that the guy on the radio would keep his trap shut! But on a lake the size of Oahe, pressure and overcrowding is seldom anything too serious.
Annually, anglers on Oahe witness a bite that starts in mid-May in the warm northern reaches of the reservoir near Pollock and Mobridge and then progresses to the south. By early June the bite's going strong in the midlake portion near Gettysburg, and by month's end has stretched along the entire reaches of the lake past the Cheyenne River and beyond to Spring and Cow creeks and the Oahe dam. By then, everyone's enjoying good fishing.
As a rule, the fish in the lower third of the lake are larger but fewer, because more fish are produced in the warmer waters of the upper third of the reservoir, and many of the smaller fish stay close to home. The cold water of lower Oahe may see a later bite, but it produces some of the best fishing and sees less pressure than the popular midlake areas.
Because of the progressive nature of the bite, timing is critical. I remember fishing the Little Bend area early one June, and working hard to catch just two walleyes for a full day's effort while everyone on the river in the Whitlocks region was on fire. I like to fish as close to home as possible, but another hour's drive would have made a world of difference.
An area within the system that sees one of the most consistent bites is the hugely popular Whitlocks Bay region in the middle of the lake. "Our bite usually gets going in May, and we had a great season last year," said Chuck Krause at the Whitlock Bay Supper Club. "There are just a tremendous amount of good walleyes in the lake right now, and I think this year's fishing will be even better. It's just a matter of getting out there and working the fish.
"I don't think people realize just how good the fishing is on Oahe. This time of year last year we were catching up to 60 walleyes a day, with several fish going over 20 inches."
That's good fishing in anyone's book -- and especially sweet to Krause. "It's nice to see the lake rebound," he remarked. "We just need to see some improved water conditions and this lake will explode."
Krause looks for walleyes on the subtle points that remain in the lake either by jigging them or by using either Lindy or bottom-bouncer rigs. "Like any system, live bait is the way to go this time of year," he observed. "And it isn't that tough to find fish most days. We need to see some water in the system, but access is very good in the area, and people that used to fish the lake need to come back and experience this for themselves."
When will the water return? That seems to be the million-dollar question, as Oahe has dipped to 30 feet below normal. "Water levels are one of our biggest concerns," said John Lott, Lake Oahe fisheries biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We should see good access across the reservoir this year, and hope Mother Nature will give us a break and the system will start to refill.
"We are going to have some good fishing on Oahe this year. Our smelt population increased again last year and is now complemented by a good population of gizzard shad, lake herring, and minnows. The lake is in good shape in regards to forage, and the fish have responded. They look great, and have that plump healthy appearance that Oahe walleyes are known for.
"We have a good mix of fish in the system, with many of the better walleyes coming from the strong 1999 and 2001 year-classes. The smaller walleyes that once overpopulated the ranks have been absorbed into the system and are now some of our best fish."
According to Lott, the annual peak bite on Oahe occurs for a reason. "Once the walleyes have recovered from the spring spawn, there is a period of time when they are very active, yet the food chain hasn't quite developed," he explained. "This is when we see a lot of walleyes taken each year and this year's bite should be similar to last year's, but the fish will have another year's growth on them."
As the bite progresses down from Whitlocks, past Bush's and the Cheyenne River reaches, anglers in this area of the Lake start to see great walleye action. Pierre's Karl Palmer, a veteran angler and Lake Oahe
fishing guide who really loves this area said, "This is going to be a great month on Oahe -- probably the best in years. I spend a lot of time in this part of the system. It's kind of the best of both worlds: plenty of fish and a good population of larger walleyes.
"The walleyes are relatively shallow this time of year and are eager to bite. I spend a lot of time in 10 to 20 feet of water."
Live bait is his weapon of choice for the most part. Although jigs are a good option in certain areas, Palmer likes to target his fish with a heavy bottom-bouncer with a plain hook and half a crawler on the business end. "It is a pretty simple presentation that allows me to cover a lot of water looking for active fish," he explained. "If I am fishing stained water or facing a stiff wind, I usually add a spinner. But 80 percent of the time it is nothing more than a bouncer with a plain hook.
"A lot of the traditional flats and midlake humps that I used to fish are now dry ground, and it seems the fish have moved toward the key points and the stairstep ledges coming off of them. I also spend a lot of time fishing secondary points off of the main points near the Cheyenne River, and Charlie and Tall Prairie Chicken creeks."
Strings of curly pondweed can hamper fishing, and they've been a real thorn to plug-pullers, but a heavy bouncer will pull right through the stuff -- and in that cover you'll find a ton of fish!
If you've fished Oahe lately, you've also notice a new addition to the lake: curly pondweed. Strings of curly pondweed can hamper fishing, and they've been a real thorn to plug-pullers, but a heavy bouncer will pull right through the stuff -- and in that cover you'll find a ton of fish! The secondary breaks have a lot of pondweed, and at times they're just stacked with walleyes.
"It takes awhile to find active walleyes on Oahe," said Palmer. "And you may have to look at several promising points before you hit your target."
Palmer reports that once you've located active walleyes you can work them for a couple of days before blowing them out; then the searching game starts again.
"The lake is full of good walleyes, he stated. "We see a lot of fish in the 17- to 20-inch range, as well as fish up in the mid-20s. In a couple of years we should start to see more trophy fish (walleyes over 8 pounds) coming from the lake."
As the last year's bite slipped into its final stages and encompassed the entire reservoir, I found myself hitting the lower reaches of the system, there enjoying a good bite from the Cheyenne River down past Agency, Mail Shack, Cow, Spring and Chantier creeks.
With a couple of weeks of good fishing under my belt, I even decided to enter the 2005 South Dakota Governor's Cup Walleye Tournament. Now, I know that walleye tournaments aren't for everyone, but this was the first time I'd considered fishing the tournament, and so my fishing partner, and brother, Dale and I decided to give it a try.
The tournament was June 25 and 26, and so we hit the water as often as possible to get ready for the big show. On the Friday before the event we headed out at daylight and found ourselves near the tournament's northern border, where we fished secondary points ripping 1 1/2-ounce bouncers along the edges of the curly pondweed. On the third point we hit gold; walleyes stacked along the cover on the very tip of the outer rim.
Moving on from there, we were careful not to burn any productive points, and found several good prospects before heading south to a couple of our favorite locations along Agency and Mailshack creeks. There we found a couple of good schools of fish along Mailshack's rockpile, Agency's main points and a couple of midlake humps near the combine area -- and I can't imagine how many walleyes we caught that day. By the time we got back at the Spring Creek boat launch (an hour after dinner), we thought we had a plan.
On the first day of the tournament, we headed to the mouth of Agency Creek, out of which I took a pair of 19-inch walleyes before Dale was in the water. An hour later, with nothing to show for the additional 60 minutes but the same two walleyes, we decided to head north.
Hopping from point to point near the Cheyenne River inlet, it was impossible to control the boat in the steamy southerly wind. With a third nice walleye to add to our tally, we determined that we should go back south. On the way, huge rollers pounded us, giving us a beating of the sort that makes a guy remember that tackling the big water of Lake Oahe is no game.
With a couple of hours left before weigh-in time, we went back to our original area and found the fish hanging on the outer lip of the key point leading into the creek. Walleyes came easily over the next several passes, and we headed into the day's weigh-in with a good entry. Nothing big -- just a solid eight-fish stringer that weighed about 20 pounds and put us in ninth place for the day.
Only a couple of pounds out of the lead, we were excited to hit the water the next day -- which, unfortunately, turned out to be one of those days that I'd like to forget. Despite moving doggedly from point to point and bay to bay, we just couldn't find fish; on top of it all, I lost the biggest fish of the day at the net.
Basically having spent the day looking instead of catching, we ended up with just over 9 pounds for the day, putting us way out of the money and sending us home with a new appreciation for the big lake. We later learned that the fish had moved a few miles downstream, where they'd proved more than cooperative. Another lesson learned!
Maybe to refill this waiting giant, we are going to see great fishing for a very long time. But I can't think of a better place to be this month. See you on the water!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For guide services or more on fishing Lake Oahe, contact Missouri River fishing guide Karl Palmer by phone at (605) 223-3186, or find him online at www.dakotawalleye.com. Or contact veteran guide Chuck Krause at the Whitlock Bay Supper Club at (605) 765-9196.