2003 holds promise for some really great walleye fishing at these Great Plains hotspots.
The author hefts a healthy walleye for weighing. Numbers of the popular game fish are high throughout the Great Plains, and anglers throughout the region can expect good catches in coming months. Photo courtesy of Gene Hornbeck
By Gene Hornbeck
Looking for the top walleye fishing on the Great Plains this year? If so, look to North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, South Dakota's Oahe, Nebraska's McConaughy and Kansas' Cedar Bluff Reservoir. However, owing to extended drought, there may well be problems with these popular fisheries in all of the states this year.
"Sakakawea has always been good walleye fishing," said Terry Steinwand, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at Bismarck, "and last year was no exception. It wasn't as good as usual because of low water, which made the fish a little tougher to locate, but once the anglers found them, they did very well. The low water has also made access a little tougher in some areas.
"We also had great fishing on Devils Lake," Steinwand said "We have had great reproduction on this big lake (125,000-plus acres) and anglers are catching a lot of small fish as well as some big ones.
"It's kind of frustrating to manage these two great walleye lakes right now," said the fisheries chief. "It's not because of the fishery - it's access. On Sakakawea we have been chasing a dropping water level, and on Devils Lake we are trying to stay ahead of the rising water table."
Rick Folden of Parshall has been a guide on Sakakawea for about 20 years. He said the fishing was good last year despite low water.
"The fishing has been good for the past three or four years, even though the water level in the reservoir has been low for a couple of years," Folden said. "It took some exploring to find the better fishing last year, and I spent a lot of time on the Van Hook arm of the lake. There's a lot of good structure in Van Hook, and it attracts smelt. Thus, the walleyes are there too.
"I think June, July and August are the best fishing months for walleye on Sakakawea. I begin working the shallows in May with jigs and other artificials and also do a lot of drift-fishing with minnows, crawlers and leeches on a Lindy rig. By July the fish begin to move into deeper water - say, 15 to 30 feet - and we fish jigs as well as bait and/or a combination of the same. By late July and into August, the walleyes may be as deep as 60 feet, and jig-minnow and jig-crawler combos using 3/8- to 3/4-ounce jigs work well."
When talking about good walleye fishing in North Dakota, we must mention Ashtabula, Darling, Audubon, Spirit, Brewer and the Canal Lakes, as well as the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, along with Jamestown Reservoir.
Sakakawea produced a lot of big fish last year. Todd Leingang of Mandan boated one of the largest - a 10-pound, 3-ounce fish - in August. Devils Lake was a winter hotspot for walleyes last year. Glen Delorme Jr. of Michael took two - one 10 pounds, 9 ounces, the other 9 pounds, 11 ounces - on Feb. 17.
The Missouri and Red rivers also produced some big ones. William Bartuska of Grand Forks netted one weighing 10 pounds, 8 ounces in April on the Red River, and Justin Parks of Grand Forks landed an 11-pound, 12-ounce fish the same month. Pat Voegele of Bismarck caught an 'eye that went 10 pounds, 12 ounces on the Missouri in February, and Jack Reinhardt of Hazen got an 8-pound, 15-ounce fish on the big river in October 2002.
Low water has had a severe impact on Nebraska's Lake McConaughy, as well as southwestern reservoirs. Fish managers with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are worried.
"The big story on the walleye front in Nebraska this year is going to be water," said Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoirs manager for the NGPC in Lincoln. "We went into the winter with record or near-record lows on McConaughy and Minatare as well as those reservoirs in the Republican River drainage, including Swanson and even Harlan County.
"If we don't get a lot of moisture, we could see the situation get even worse." Bauer said. "Late last summer we were down to only one operational boat ramp on McConaughy, for example, and you had to have a four-wheel-drive to use it.
"There is little doubt that the low water levels will have some effect on the fishery in all of these reservoirs. McConaughy still has a great walleye fishery, and we sampled a lot of fish last fall on our surveys, but it will be tough to get to them if the water level doesn't improve. "
On a more positive note, reservoirs such as Merritt, Calamus, Sherman and Elwood should offer good walleye action, as should the Missouri River from Lewis and Clark Lake upstream to the South Dakota border. The walleye and sauger fishing should also be good below Gavins Point Dam.
"Calamus, Sherman and Merritt are all good places to catch a bunch of walleyes," he said. "All have lots of 15- to 18-inch fish, but this does not mean they don't have big ones too. We sampled all sizes of walleyes at Calamus. We found a lot of big walleyes at Sherman last spring when setting nets to take eggs for our hatchery operations.
"Harlan County Reservoir fishing was pretty good last year and it will offer the best fishing of the Republican River reservoirs this year," Bauer said. "It has all sizes of fish and was second only to McConaughy in the past two or three years in the number of Master Angler walleyes taken." Master Angler walleyes must weigh 8 pounds or more to qualify.
Despite the low pool, McConaughy dominated the Master Angler fish entered for an award by late last fall. The top five entered in the awards program are: Marcus Dryak of Omaha, who got an award for a 12-pound, 12-ounce walleye caught at Branched Oak Reservoir; Ted Vanosdall of Grand Island, who caught one weighing 12 pounds, 5 ounces; Carl Hastings of Lemoyne, who got a 12-pound, 6-ounce fish; and Brian Thomas of Papillion, who took an 11-pound, 8-ounce example from McConaughy. Jay Kuecker of Kearney logged in with an 11-pound, 6-ounce fish he caught at Harlan County Reservoir.
Kerry Keane of Gering has been guiding anglers to great walleye action on McConaughy for the past six years. He said fishing last year wasn't as good as it has been for the past three or four years, but was still great.
"Fishing may not have been as good because of the low water, but I have to rate it as good to excellent," he said. "The lake is the lowest it has been since somewhere back in the '60s and it required a good bit of scouting and searching to find the productive fishing spots. With the wat
er down I had to use a lot of electronics to find fish, and because of the low water, you had a lot of competition. I did, however, catch almost as many (50-plus) Master Angler walleyes last year as I did before and my customers did every bit as good."
Keane said he uses a variety of baits and lures, but he has found his best baits are crawlers and leeches.
"I fish bait on Lindy rigs by trolling or drift-fishing and troll lures such as the Rapala, Shad Raps, Husky Jerks or Reef Runners and use planner boards quite a bit. They give me more room for more rods if I have a couple or three customers on board, and they do take fish. I usually clip the line to the boards after running out 75 to 100 feet of line. You then have the option of running them anywhere from 20 to 100 feet out and away from the boat. I most often use deep-running crankbaits on them."
Keane said that in his book, the best fishing on McConaughy is in May, June and July.
"I also like fall fishing, but last fall with the water down it was tough. I like to use slab spoons on them and work the 30- to 50-foot depths, but last fall my good spots didn't have much if any water over them, because the lake was down about 40 feet below normal."
Keane said his best fish last year weighed 13 pounds, 7 ounces. He said he encourages catch-and-release fishing with his customers. "If they want to keep fish, that's OK too, but I try to make sure the trophy fish - 8 pounds or over - are released."
Dave Panzer of Pierre, S.D., who has been a guide on Lake Oahe for about 10 years, says the fishing is getting better after a couple of "down" years because of low water.
"We don't have as many big fish as we did a few years back, but we have a lot of small ones," he said. "I think now with the bag limit up and the size limits down, we are thinning the walleyes down enough to give the forage base of smelt a chance to increase and get the fishing back to something like close to normal."
Panzer said the fishing was good in the lower end of the lake early in the summer, and then seemed to move uplake in late June and July.
"I found walleyes in good numbers in many areas in June and July," he said. " We caught fish up in Cheyenne, Okoboji, Spring Creek, Sutton and Whitlock bays."
Panzer uses a spinning outfit for most of his fishing and loads it with 6-pound-test line when fishing jig and jig/minnow or jig/crawler combinations. He changes to 8-pound test if fishing a bottom-bouncer with bait.
"I guess if I have a favorite rig for walleye it would be a bottom-bouncer, a No. 2 hook and half of a crawler," said the guide. "I have found I hook more fish on half a worm than a whole one because I get the ones that hit short."
On a statewide basis, reported South Dakota fisheries chief Dennis Unkenholtz, walleye fishing was good last year.
"We have some of the same water problems faced by the other states on the Great Plains," he said. "Oahe water levels are down something like 30 feet below full pool, so it's giving us some problems with boating access, but the fishing has been good, especially for small fish.
"If we look at the best lakes for numbers, it would have to be Oahe. For big walleyes, I guess I would have to go with Lake Sharpe, or over in the northeast there is Reetz Lake, which we are managing for big walleyes with restricted size and bag limits. It has a lot of 5- and 6-pounders in it, as well as some really big perch."
Unkenholtz said other lakes in the northeast offering good walleye action include Enemy Swim, Roy, Lynn, Waubay and Bitter. In the west, Angostura, Shadehill and Orman reservoirs offer above-average walleye fishing.
The largest walleye entered for the department's Trophy Angler Award last year was a 12-pound, 7-ounce fish taken by Robert Cromwell of Pierre from Lake Sharp. Shad Derby of Sioux City, Iowa, boated one weighing 12 pounds, 6 ounces at Fort Randall Dam, Donnie McBrayer of Ethan landed an 11-pound, 10-ounce 'eye on Oahe, Todd Herr of Webster caught an 11-pound, 10-ounce specimen at Enemy Swim, and Johnathan Toth of Whitewood logged in with an catch weighing in at 11 pounds, 10 ounces from Orman Reservoir.
Kansas anglers boated some good fish as well last year. Five of the largest entered in the Kansas Master Angler Program were: 9 pounds, 12 ounces, Milford Reservoir, Paul Kraus (Carbondale); 9 pounds, 9 ounces, Glen Elder, Art Ewoldt (Lincoln, Neb.); 8 pounds, 12 ounces, Glen Elder, Terry Bricker (Grand Island, Neb.); 8 pounds, 4 ounces, Atchison State Lake, Teresa Bender (Leavenworth); 8 pounds, 4 ounces, Cheney Reservoir, Kevin Sowers (Hutchinson).
Paul Kraus was fishing Milford for the first time from a boat when he caught the big one.
"I had fished Milford a couple of times from the shore, but never from a boat until early last June," he said. "Three of us were drift-fishing with a jig-and-crawler and had caught a few small fish, and then I hung something that felt like a snag at first, and it ended up to be my first trophy fish.
"That kind of got me going as a fisherman," Kraus said. " I went out on Milford a few more times, and then fished Clinton, Melvern and Pomona reservoirs a few times with fair success. I also fished Coffey County, and it's a good one, especially in the spring; it has a minimum-size limit of 18 inches and a bag limit of two walleyes daily.
"My 14-year-old nephew, Jason Gardner of Topeka, was with me when I caught the big walleye, and now he's hooked on walleye fishing too," Kraus said. "I think he'll be a fisherman the rest of his life."
Jeff Rader of Glen Elder is a veteran guide and fishes Glen Elder and Wilson for walleyes, cats, stripers, wipers and smallmouths. He says the fishing on both reservoirs was good last year.
"Glen Elder was the best for big fish and Wilson for numbers," Rader said. "May and June are the best months for walleyes on both reservoirs. When I fish Wilson, my choice of rigs is a bottom-bouncer with a spinner-and-crawler. On Glen Elder, I would go with a crawler on a jig. I would suggest drift-fishing and trolling as the best way of presenting one's offering."
Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife fisheries chief Doug Nygren said that walleye fishermen had a good year in Kansas.
Glen Elder was good as was Cheney, Marion and El Dorado," Nygren said. "Coffee County remains good, and reservoirs such as Webster, Wilson, Perry, Tuttle Creek and Milford have decent walleye numbers. This year some of those lakes were drawn down quite a bit because of the drought. That fact didn't affect the fishery a whole lot, but it did make access a little tough on some of them. Milford has some good wiper fishing and the walleye numbers are increasing, so I look for it to be pretty good this year."
Kansas, as well as the other three Great Plains states, has some size and bag limit changes in effect this year. Some of those in Nebraska are significant, with a statewide 15-inch size limit except for a few waters. South Dakota has changed some rules, as has North Dakota. Thus, anglers not familiar with the new rules and regulations should review them before going fishing.
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