You don't hear a lot about this walleye hotspot in South Dakota, and that's too bad. Here's a sample of what you may have been missing.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By R.A. Simpson
Without a doubt, June is the top month of the year when it comes to walleye fishing in South Dakota: The weather's at its best, anglers are fired up and the fish are cooperating. Studies show that more walleyes are taken from our waters during the month of June than during any other month in the calendar year. For most of us, the 30 days of this great fishing month just aren't enough.
For years the Missouri River system and its sprawling reservoirs garnered the lion's share of attention when it came to taking June walleyes, but a rift in the stability of the river and an explosion of fabulous fishing in the northeast corner of the state have swung that attention toward the small town of Webster.
Sitting smack in the middle of some of the best walleye action in the state, there lie within a 30-minute drive of Webster roughly 15 productive lakes, the most famous of which is undoubtedly giant Waubay Lake. The lake has more than quadrupled its size in the past decade, swallowing up many small lakes and joining with lakes like Rush, Minnewasta, and Blue Dog to create a massive fishery nearly nine miles long and roughly five miles wide at its greatest extent.
Though the lake has receded slightly from its high-water mark set in July 1999, it currently has a maximum depth of 35 feet - and it's full of walleyes, perch, and pike. If you haven't tried fishing Waubay lately, you've really been missing the boat.
Exploding with limits of hungry scale-tipping walleyes, Waubay has stood the test of time. And, thanks to the management of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the lake is still a favorite place for walleye anglers to wet a line.
Daily limits of four fish over 5 pounds each are but a pleasant memory on the big lake. Anglers are today allowed a daily limit of just two walleyes with a possession limit of eight; of those, only one can be 20 inches or longer. The minimum-length limit has been set at 14 inches for this season - a 2-inch reduction from the past two years' limit of 16 inches. The reduction in length limit still allows anglers to tap into a bonanza of walleyes while at the same time helping forage species regroup by trimming an unusually large year-class of walleyes now swimming the lake.
Veteran angler Cory Fields of Webster predicts great things for Waubay this season. "The lake is full of walleyes between 13 1/2 and 15 3/4 inches," he said, "and still has good numbers of those larger walleyes into the 20s (over 20 inches). We are going to see a lot of walleyes coming out of the lake this month."
Fields, who guides on the massive lake with partner Jason Coaster, has seen Waubay rollercoaster from its meager beginnings to pandemonium a few years ago, and then taper down into the fishery that it has become. "The GF&P has done a great job managing the lake," Fields noted. "There is little to no natural reproduction on the lake, so the majority of the walleyes we are taking are from stocking efforts. The problem with stocking is that it isn't successful every year, and the bulk of the walleyes in the system right now are from only one year-class."
Brian Blackwell, large-lake biologist with the SDDGFP, agrees. "We have a huge year-class of walleyes from the 1999 stockings that are not growing at rates once seen on the lake," he observed. "Thus the reason for lowering the minimum-length limit, which will trim the population and allow forage in the lake to rebound."
Currently, yellow perch play a huge role as a food source for the lake's walleye population, but poor spawning conditions for the game fish have resulted in lower forage, slow growth rates and a lot of hungry walleyes. Blackwell explains that the population could quickly rebound if only water levels would cooperate and let the perch pull off another solid spawn. "We want to trim the walleye density in the lake to help the forage," he said. "We need a better predator-to-prey balance, but we kept the daily limit at two fish so we can maintain the fishery for quite some time. We can't forget that with limited natural reproduction and low stocking success the past couple of years, that large year-class of walleyes may have to sustain the fishery for a while." He added that stocking success in 2003 improved over 2002 levels, but not as much as he'd have liked.
Last year, Fields says, catching a walleye over 20 inches was no problem, but catching a walleye in the slot was. "I really noticed it at tournament time," he recalled. "The guy who came in with a 27-inch walleye didn't concern me, but the guy who pulled out an 18- or 19-inch fish was trouble, because everyone had their bigger fish."
Fields looks at June as a transition period on the lake. Early in the month, fish are found spread evenly across the lake, with the bulk of the catches being made on the many vast grassy flats using live-bait combinations. By months' end, however, there is a shift toward deeper water, and a lot of anglers switch gears and start pulling plugs. The area between Duck Island and the School Bus in particular is a plug-puller's dream.
Cormorant Island in the southeastern part of the lake is always a likely place in which to find fish. There are many rocky structures spread across the lake that also attract a lot of attention from both boat fishermen and shore-anglers, but while those areas hold a lot of bread-and-butter walleyes, Fields looks for bigger fish in submerged timber.
"There is a ton of submerged timber in the lake and the bigger fish like to ambush baitfish there," Fields offered. "Catching walleyes on Waubay is unbelievably easy, but you still have to work for the better fish. I like to vertical-jig or use slip-bobbers in the small openings in the timber, generally in the 8- to 12-foot range, and search around until I locate a pocket of good fish.
"Once you find that pocket of fish, they are pretty predictable; I can usually stay on them for several days by making small moves in the timber. The guys pulling plugs get their share of bigger walleyes too, but I like the challenge of finessing them out of the timber."
Just how big do Waubay's walleyes get? Trophy fish over 8 pounds - some of the lake's original inhabitants - get pulled from the lake monthly. A few real giants - walleyes over 10 pounds - have been registered as well, many of which have been released back into the lake.
Stable water levels at the lake over the past couple of years have allowed anglers, in Fields' words, to "catch up to the lake" - that is, to get to know the lake. "The first few years we were constantly looking at new areas and searching for fis
h," he said. "But now we have a good idea of where and how to fish the lake and is doesn't take long to find them."
The massive dimensions of the lake can be intimidating to new anglers, but it only takes one stop at the local bait shop in Webster to pinpoint the best action of the day. Doug Johnson at the Sportsman's Cove is always glad to steer anglers toward a good bite, whether it be on Waubay or on one of the many other fisheries in the area. A stop for bait, snacks, and information can save an angler hours of searching once he's on the water.
The explosion of exceptional walleye fishing in the northeastern part of the state has drawn the attention of a lot of serious anglers. It's hard to dispute the assertion that Webster may be the state's new walleye capital, given the wealth of angling opportunities within earshot of the small town. Walleye fishing on Waubay Lake has seen its ups and downs over the past few years, but with new regulation changes, an abundance of walleyes in the 2-pound range and a good number of larger fish, the lake is undoubtedly the No. 1 spot for filling your stringer this month.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For guide services or more information on the angling opportunities at Waubay or the other fisheries in the northeast part of the state, contact Cory Fields or Jason Coester of Glacial Lakes Guide Service at (605) 345-3180, or (605) 345-3311. Or go online at www.waubaylake.com.
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