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Big-Water Walleyes

Big-Water Walleyes

Dakota anglers have leaned well that when the summer vegetation starts choking small lakes, the big impoundments are the ones to hit. (July 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

For walleye fishing enthusiasts on the northern prairies, July is a month of transition -- a pause between the famed June bite and the lazy dog days of August. It's no surprise that when the mercury inches closer to the century mark, the walleye bite on many of our small lakes goes flat.

The combination of the pounding heat of summer and a faltering walleye bite is an annual event on our small impoundments, and although unwelcome, it's expected. When the summer swelter puts the skids on active post-spawn walleyes and jump-starts enough aquatic vegetation to choke many fisheries that lack deep-water refuge, it's not time to call it quits -- it's time to switch gears.

In the Dakotas, our biggest lakes and reservoirs have yet to realize the full effects of summer, and because of the progressive nature of walleye activity on some systems, the bite actually gets better this month on those bigger waters. July is an easy month when it comes to predicting the whereabouts of the best walleye bite in the region, and it's time to look to the big waters to keep those livewells running. Here's a closer look at the July walleye picture, and at the action that each system has to offer.

Last month, anglers in North Dakota didn't have far to drive to find active walleyes. A ton of nice fish hit the net early, but as the month drew to an end, so too did the June frenzy, leaving anglers looking for other options in order to fill their stringers.

Devils Lake and Lake Sakakawea are two of the best year-round walleye fisheries on the planet; many states in the Midwest would love to have a pair of bookends of their caliber. But as good as the fishing has been, this is the time of year that sees the two giants really earn their reps. Just take a look at the list of "catch-and-release" and "whopper" walleyes entered with the state game and fish department. In the month of June, at least a dozen fisheries contributed big walleyes to the list. By the time July comes into play, however, Sakakawea and Devils Lake stand virtually alone, yielding more than 95 percent of the walleyes entered.

Although Devils Lake is right on its heels, Lake Sakakawea remains the state's No. 1 fishing destination, accounting for more hours of fishing time logged and more walleyes produced than any other lake in the state. July is traditionally the best month on the big reservoir, and although low water levels have taken their toll, Sakakawea is still going to provide great walleye fishing, as the combination of less water and reduced forage has put the walleyes in the system on the prowl.


"There have been a lot of nice walleyes taken already, but the bite will actually get better from here," offered Tim Miller, who guides and operates in the Van Hook arm area of the lake. "July is just a great month to be on the lake. We are still at a place in water temperature where the fish are very active, and the forage is still relating to shallow water. By month's end, some of our fish will head east and retreat to the main lake if the temperature gets too warm, but for the most part, stable weather patterns and clouds of active walleyes will keep us busy here the next several weeks."

The Van Hook arm, an offshoot of the main reservoir, has been a walleye factory for years and is famous for putting out marble-eyes both in quantity and of quality. The always-popular area gets a lot of attention from anglers, but it's still Miller's top overall spot for taking walleyes this month.

"I have guys hitting Indian Hills, Dakota, Beulah and other big bays, but I have always had a soft spot for the Hook," Miller said. "It seems like there is always a good bite somewhere in the area."

Miller admitted that secret spots are a thing of the past, and that GPS systems and navionic chips have made structure is easy to locate and stay on top of. "It isn't hard to catch fish this time of year," he said, "but you still have to find them, and all of the fancy gadgets in the world can't take the place of man-hours in a boat. One thing July anglers tend to overlook is that many of these fish are still relatively shallow. Guys look at the calendar and immediately head out to 25-foot-plus depths, but if there is a little wind, you can still find quality fish in less than 10 feet of water."

For the most part, the walleyes at this juncture have left the secondary points and are hanging close to the main points and islands in the system. Fishing isn't hard: Just find a good point and start; continue down the line until you find an active school and stay on them with short runs. Fish the ledges out into relatively deep water, and you should be in business.

By now, anglers have traded in their jigs and Lindys for bouncers and plugs. "I like to cover a lot of water looking for walleyes this time of year," Miller noted. "Pulling plugs along the flats and breaklines, or bouncers along the ledges, points and islands, lets you cover a lot of water in a short period of time. These fish want to cooperate -- you just have to find them. This is an easy place to fish, and everyone who puts in the effort ends up with good walleyes."

Miller admits that, because of low water levels and reduced forage, he doesn't see the numbers of big fish that were so popular a few years ago, but limits of quality 2- to 5-pound fish are still a common place.

Dave Fryda, Missouri River Systems supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, echoed that sentiment: Reduced forage has hurt the populations of larger fish in Sakakawea more so than it has the smaller fish. "The quality of fish just isn't as good as it used to be," he said. "There are not as many big walleyes left in the system, and it all revolves around the low water levels and lack of forage.

"Sakakawea lives and dies by its smelt population, and right now the smelt biomass is about 90 percent depleted. There is other forage in the lake, but it tends to be more seasonal. Smelt is the preferred choice of walleyes and the one that enables them to put on weight quickly. We still have enough brood smelt in the system -- adult fish ready to reproduce. We just need a break in this drought to help us rebound."

One bright spot that Fryda sees for the system is the good job the department has done in keeping up with access needs. Of course, Mother Nature has helped, but Fryda points out that as the lake is accessible, this should be a great month for catching Sakakawea's walleyes. He also points to a first-quality bite below the dam in the Garrison tailrace this time of year as an opportunity that anglers shouldn't overlook.

At Devils Lake, North Dakota's other top dog when it comes to boating big-water walleyes, water levels are no problem, and the angling's never been better. Loaded with fish, the lake has a self-sustaining walleye population that is on the move right now. If anything, Devils Lake is probably the most consistent walleye fishery in the state.

Its massive size can be intimidating at first glance, but for several reasons, it's actually a very easy system to fish. First off: As is the case with any system, the best fishing occurs in only a portion of the lake. Another reason: the abundance of walleyes in the lake. Then there's the good visibility of the structure that's present: points, flooded timber, submerged roadbeds . . . the list goes on. Also: Enough boats are in the system on any given day in July to announce where the latest bite is occurring.

Kyle Blanchfield, owner of the Woodland Resort, reported that walleye fishing has been fantastic, and that July is always a favorite. "We have so many year-classes of walleyes in the lake that you never know what you're going to catch," he noted.

In Blanchfield's view, anything goes in July. "This is a great month to be on the water," he stated. "The walleyes seem to stay shallow a little longer each year, hanging in the timber, submerged roadbeds, ledges or flats before it gets hot enough to send them packing. One day we see a lot of fish come in from the timber, and the next day the guys hitting the points and breaks bring in good fish. Late in the month, some of the ledges and deep rockpiles in Creel Bay hold good fish. There are a hundred ways to fish walleyes, and every one of them will work here."

Casting shallow-running plugs on the lake is a mainstay; countless walleyes come from this time-tested technique. Casting into the shallows of the Minnewauken Flats and Pelican Lake has produced scores of walleyes. Walleyes love standing timber, and Devils Lake has more standing acres than any other body of water I know of. Cast along the edges and into pockets -- it all works here.

Devils Lake is currently blessed with a mixture of all sizes of walleyes, and catch rates are very high. If you want to fish a system that is at the top of its game, hit Devils Lake. The system continues to amaze -- it just never slows down.

"There are no big secrets here," said Blanchfield. "And don't let its size scare you: Devils Lake is an easy place to fish, and everybody is catching fish. Just stop at any bait shop and ask for help if needed."

The fishing was so good at Devils Lake last year that concerns over the number of walleyes leaving the lake have been voiced. I wouldn't doubt that we could see stricter regulations or slot limits in the near future. I had to laugh when Kyle Blanchfield told me that, at times, the fishing on the lake's so good that Stevie Wonder could launch a boat and catch his limit of walleyes. Now that's a hot bite.

When it comes to big water in South Dakota, only one major player really produces consistently and is currently full of walleyes. Yes, a number of lakes in the northeast corner of the state will have a run here or there, and the state does have other Missouri River reservoirs to choose from, but none of these fisheries will come close to Lake Oahe at this time of year.

It's no secret that Oahe is once again top dog for walleye fishing in the state. According to officials with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the walleyes in the massive reservoir are without a doubt in their best shape in over a decade.

July's regarded as one of the best walleye months at Oahe, the best action being encountered primarily along the southern third of the reservoir. The system is currently blessed with plenty of forage, which has resulted in very favorable growth rates over the past few years. Like its neighbor to the north, Oahe has smelt for the backbone of its food chain, and those prey fish are currently on an upswing in the big lake thanks to rising water levels during spawning conditions.

Game officials stressed that as far as estimates of the overall health of the system go, they're taking it one year at a time right now because of continued low water levels, but, they added, slight improvements were seen last year, and right now it looks to be another very good summer for Oahe.

Veteran Oahe guide Karl Palmer, of Pierre, agreed. "Fishing has been great, and this is the peak time to hit the lower end of the lake," he said. "July is one of the top months. We had a great summer last year, and by the looks of things so far, this summer could even be better.

"There are a lot of fish in the system measuring 17 to 24 inches, and we are seeing more trophies -- fish over 8 pounds -- every year. There are also a ton of small walleyes coming through the ranks, and things look great for the fishery."

Palmer looks for walleyes in 15 to 30 feet of water early in the month, when many of the fish are staging in the shadows of the clouds of curly pondweed that has taken root in the system. However, he noted, you may sometimes be obliged to go deeper by month's end. "The pondweed actually keeps the lake's walleyes shallow longer into the summer," he reported. "Eventually it will die off, and the fish will retreat, but they will be active all of this month."

At this time of year, Palmer favors the lower third of the lake from Suttons Bay down past the Cheyenne River to the face of the Oahe Dam. "Oahe's walleyes have a progressive bite, and by now everything goes," Palmer explained. "The deeper water and large concentrations of smelt in the lower end of the reservoir are heaven for walleyes, and although the fish are spread out, they are still very active."

Early in the month, walleyes scatter along the many points and breaks in the system, but they tend to stage on the key points later on. Catching fish is just a matter of hitting a number of points until an active school is found. Bottom-bouncers and crawlers are the mainstays and allow anglers to hug the dropoffs and cover lots of water.

July is also the month that sees a lot of crankbaits in play. Places like Peoria Flats, Fantasy Island, Little Bend and the flats across from Pike Haven are just a few of the favorites for plug-pullers, who catch more than their fair share of walleyes.

"This is going to be a great month," noted Palmer. "It's just a matter of putting your time in and figuring them out a little. It is not a tough system to be successful on. Some days it comes easy, and others it takes a little longer. But, hey -- that's fishing."

As July presents itself on the northern plains and the heat of summer puts our smaller walleyes fisheries into a tailspin, it's time to head to the big water to put walleyes on the stringer. Just remember: When it comes to walleye fishing in July, bigger is definitely better!

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