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'Eyes in the Tailraces

'Eyes in the Tailraces

If you want to catch walleyes in North Dakota and South Dakota this month, then fishing below the big dams is your best bet.

by R.A. Simpson

As I eased across the Big Bend Dam overlooking the "Fort's" tailrace, I was surprised to see so many boats waiting to unload. "Don't these guys know it's cold out?" asked my dad with a slight grin on his face.

It was March 17, and although the temperature hovered around the freezing mark, word of a good tailrace walleye bite had brought out the hardiest of South Dakota's anglers. They were hoping to cash in on the fishing bonanza, no matter what the weather conditions.

Also joining us that chilly morning was my brother, Dale Simpson, who readied the boat as Dad and I stuffed ourselves into our coveralls and gulped down the last of the coffee.

"Never had to scrape the windshield on the boat before," Dale said with a puzzled look. He and Dad, who had reached our usual meeting place south of Miller on Highway 45 a little early that morning, had decided it was nice enough to take the tarp off the boat while they waited for me to arrive. Naturally, a cloud of freezing rain had hovered over us the last 20 miles of the trip, and it was now glued onto the boat and our equipment.

Unloaded and ready, we skimmed through a light crust of ice before hitting the open channel and heading for our favorite spring location near Crow Creek, several miles southeast of the dam. When we neared the trees that line the bend entering Crow Creek, Dale eased back on the throttle and crawled our boat into the 14 feet of water that guarded the standing timber.

Like most tailrace anglers in March, we went with the traditional jig-and-minnow as our primary weapon, but opted for a heavier 3/8-ounce jig because of the gusty wind. I like to go with a plain jig at this time of year: no body, no trailer - just a jig and the biggest minnow in the bucket. On our second rods, we went with our usual backups, consisting of light Lindy rigs.


The author with a fat Missouri River walleye caught in March. This big 'eye weighed in a bit shy of 6 pounds. Photo courtesy of R.A. Simpson

Twenty minutes into it, Dale gave out with the traditional cry "Fish on!" and we were in business. After a nice tussle, I netted the fat 19-incher, and minutes later found myself battling a chunky walleye that could have been a twin to Dale's fish.

We stuck with the timberline for about an hour, but as the wind increased and the action decreased, we decided to make the move back toward the dam and the protection of the high cutbanks. About a mile and a half from the dam, we slowed down in front of the "plateau," as we call it. It's nothing more than an area where a section of the high bank seems to be cut off and flattened.

"Look at that," Dale said as he shut down. The depthfinder screen was on fire with schooling walleyes stacked on the subtle dropoff from 17 to 21 feet. I quickly dropped both lines in and began to pick up slack. As I missed my next three bites, Dale and Dad threw a couple of walleyes apiece into the livewell, and would have done even better if they could have felt their fingers while rebaiting.

As we reloaded, Dale took us around for another pass, and once again the fish were cooperating. We took our third and final walleye over 18 inches, and kept several other chunky tailrace 'eyes in the 16- to 17-inch range before the school slipped away and quickly disappeared. As is often the case early in the season, we had nearly caught our limit with a fair amount of ease. But we've learned to savor these occasional bonanzas, because we know that come August, when the dog days of summer set in, we'll pay in spades for our early-season windfall.

It's no secret that tailrace fishing is king when it comes to early-spring walleyes in the Dakotas. For one thing, the areas below the big dams have open water, which is scarce come March in our part of the country. But more than that, fishing is at its best in March. Each fall, as the temperatures begin to drop, walleyes in the Missouri River tend to migrate toward the dams and stage there for the upcoming spawn. While not every walleye in the system stacks up in the tailraces, there is a noticeable shift, and these walleyes are on the bite. Here are our top three choices for catching walleyes this month.

As stated earlier, the tailrace of Big Bend Dam is always a top producer. Below the dam is the charging water that feeds Lake Francis Case, one of the most popular fisheries in South Dakota. Depending on March weather conditions and water releases, open water is common past Crow Creek into the Kiowa Flats, and possibly down to the town of Chamberlain if the wind and releases are right.

Annually, Lake Francis Case has the most consistent walleye reproduction of all the reservoirs on the Missouri River in South Dakota, and though rumors of a sudden drop in water levels and a poor spawn surfaced last spring, that was just not the case. According to Gerald Wickstrom, wildlife biologist at the American Creek Fisheries Station in Chamberlain, water levels actually held strong during the spawn.

"I don't know where those rumors started," Wickstrom stated. "Water levels were high at the peak of the spawn and were held for about a month afterwards. Preliminary netting showed substantial young of the year, and barring any ill effects, we should have another strong year-class from the 2001 spawn."

While concerns of removing egg-laden females from the system in early spring surface each season, Wickstrom reminds us that the amount of fish taken this time of year is just not a factor. "One female walleye can produce so many eggs that they make up for any fish lost," he says. "Each season, the female walleyes in the system produce way more eggs that can hatch and survive."

While the few open boat launches can get busy at this time of year, the amount of anglers and numbers of fish taken is a mere drop in the bucket when compared to a day in June.

Catching numbers of walleyes has never been a problem on Francis Case, yet size is another story. Over the years, the Fort, as local anglers call it, has come to be known more for its solid stringer of fish than as a trophy fishery. However, the current regulations guarding the system's walleyes are showing positive effects and the average size of walleyes taken has increased to over 16 1/2 inches. Currently, anglers fishing the tailrace this month are allowed a daily limit of four walleyes with a possession limit of eight. The daily creel has a minimum size-limit of 15 inches and allows for only one of those walleyes to be 18 inches or longer.

While shore-fishing in the tailrace will explode

in another month, March is generally reserved for boat traffic in Big Bend's tailrace. Immediately out of the boat launch beyond the riprap, anglers can enjoy good fishing by anchoring next to the ice in the stilling basin and pitching jigs at aggressive walleyes that seek shelter from the current along the steep ledge that lines the break.

On certain years, ice-anglers and boat anglers will actually discuss the day's bite while fishing the same area, but ice conditions are very uncertain and I have always felt better with a boat under me at that point in the season.

Farther down the tailrace, boats will be scattered along the cut banks, which offer some great fishing. The bite is profound, but it is a game of hit and miss.

At the end of the cut banks where the river turns lies the famous Crow Creek area. There are probably more March walleyes taken there than in all other areas of the system combined. Successful anglers use a combination of light jigs and slow-rolled live-bait rigs.

The key to catching the Fort's tailrace walleyes is not to get hung up on yesterday's fish. Walleyes typically are really moving around this month; you have to locate fish, take what you can, then move on. Limits of walleyes are commonly taken by anglers who are willing to work for them.

Once thought of as a second-rate fishery compared to Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe has developed into a top walleye hotspot, and has recently established itself as the best overall reservoir in the entire Missouri River system. The tailrace below the Oahe Dam that feeds into Lake Sharpe is on fire right now with hot walleye angling.

"This is the place to be," says veteran angler Karl Palmer of Fort Pierre. "Fishing has been really hot, and limits are very common."

Palmer guides out of Carl's Bait Shop in Fort Pierre, and hits the tailrace in the Pierre area hard. By his reckoning, Palmer limits out about 95 percent of the time.

Palmer's favorite way to catch tailrace walleyes is with the jig-and-minnow. "I like to anchor along the sandbar between the car bridge and railroad bridge and work the current with jigs. A lot of people who first come here are too impatient and drift and drag."

Years of experience have proved to Palmer that anchoring is the best way to put fish on the stringer. Palmer likes to be on the water early and says that the walleyes are very current orientated. "They are always trying to get out of the current. I like to pitch jigs upstream on the flats, eddies and current breaks along the sandbar, and work the current back to the boat."

The current, regulated by releases from nearby Oahe Dam, is needed to trigger feeding. A lack of current slows the bite, in Palmer's view, so the key is to get anchored and let the current and fish come.

As with all March tailrace fishing, the water below Oahe is crystal clear and the walleyes are spooky. Palmer recommends using light line in the clear water - usually 4-pound-test and either a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig, depending on the current.

"The fishing is fast and furious," explains Palmer. "There is no secret spot or lure; everybody's just catching fish."

The veteran angler also explains that while the sandbars get the lion's share of the attention, the mouth of the stilling basin is also a great spot to fish. "The stilling basin is void of current, and the water is warmer than the main channel. Tons of walleyes are taken there every spring. We catch a lot of walleyes in the 17-inch range to fill the slot. And there are a lot of 20- to 24-inch fish to fill the one-over-18-inches maximum."

As with all walleye fishing at this time of year, Palmer echoes the sentiment that this is a great time to catch a wallhanger, as big aggressive females feed actively prior to their spawning.

Currently, Lake Sharpe is blessed with a healthy size distribution of walleyes coupled with a solid forage base. Current regulations mirror those of Lake Francis Case, with a four-walleye daily limit. Once again, the daily creel has a minimum size limit of 15 inches and allows only one of those fish to be 18 inches or longer.

The limit of one walleye over 18 inches has been widely accepted by anglers, who have seen the average size of their catch increase annually since the inception of the rule. South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks officials report that because of the rule, 40 percent of the walleyes over 18 inches that were caught last season were released. Amazingly, there are times on Lake Sharpe when anglers have a hard time catching fish below the 18-inch size limit.

While fishing has been great on Lake Sharpe, Cliff Stone, senior biologist with the SDDGFP at American Creek Fisheries Station, says that the abundance of walleyes less than 15 inches and greater than 18 inches has increased. "Those larger fish will have to sustain the fishery until new year-classes reach harvestable sizes," he explains. "Anglers should also pay attention to the excellent opportunities for white bass, smallmouth bass and channel cats in the system."

Like that found to the south at Oahe, the tailrace fishing at North Dakota's Garrison Tailrace also offers anglers a rare opportunity to catch walleyes in open water this month. The fertile waters that feed the Missouri River and, eventually, giant Lake Oahe have always been popular for fishing. And if last fall was any indication, fishing should be superb this spring in the tailrace. "Most of the walleyes people have been catching are right around that 18-inch mark and above," says Jeff Hendrickson, fisheries biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

While Lake Oahe has been plagued with a predator/prey problem that has left the system full of small, hungry walleyes, Hendrickson says the resident walleyes in the Garrison tailrace look good. "The walleyes that come up from Oahe and the river portion of the system near Bismarck are showing lower weights and sizes. But smelt have never been as big of a factor in the extreme upper reaches of the system as they are in the southern two-thirds. Tailrace walleyes primarily feed on abundant white suckers and other forage including perch, crappies, minnows and white bass. Of course, there are plenty of smelt coming through the dam from Lake Sakakawea and those are quickly gobbled down as well, so the fish are in good shape."

Hendrickson says the only exception to that rule comes during the spring when scores of smelt enter the tailrace area to spawn, giving resident walleyes a big boost.

Typically, open water exists for about five miles below the dam, depending on weather and water releases, and good fishing exists throughout the area. Look for current breaks along sandbars, ledges, flats and eddies for active fish. Once again fishing light jigs pays off, but some anglers contend they catch larger walleyes by floating dead smelt near the bottom.

On nice

days, the area can see a lot of traffic this time of year. Anglers are currently allowed a daily limit of five walleyes with only one of those fish exceeding 18 inches. There is no minimum size limit by design. "We would like to see an increased harvest on those walleyes in the 13- to 15-inch range to help increase growth rates and sustain our forage base," explains Hendrickson.

While low water levels have troubled the upper reaches of the Missouri River System for the past year, Hendrickson feels that the lower releases from the dam will actually help walleye fishing in the tailrace this month. "The walleyes are very current orientated here, and with less current to fight, they should congregate and stay longer," he says.

"Another thing I would like to mention about spring tailrace fishing is the great trophy trout and salmon that are taken here each year," adds Hendrickson. The state record for three species of trout - rainbow, brown and cutthroat - came from the tailrace, as well as salmon approaching 25 pounds."

* * *
As cabin fever reaches its peak this time of year, one of the best remedies is the fantastic walleye fishing going on right now in the tailraces along the Missouri River. See you there!

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