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Why Wait for Walleyes?

Why Wait for Walleyes?

September is often a down time for Dakota walleye anglers waiting for the fall fishing resurgence. But with action like this available, it doesn't have to be.

By Dick Willis

The breath of autumn arrives in September in the Dakotas, and the walleyes feel it. They rise from the depths they've haunted through the long summer. Dakota fishermen are waiting for them.

The early fall is a great time to go walleye fishing in our states. The fish are in a new mood, so to speak. It's more of an active mood - more of a feeding mood.


It's for the sake of such walleyes that Kent Odermann, a walleye guide based out of Minot, spends a good part of his autumn cruising the Missouri River. Odermann, who's been guiding professionally for a quarter-century, has been fishing Lake Sakakawea even longer - 43 years. He started out going after bullheads as a kid, when he would ride his bicycle to a creek to fish for them. But that was just a warmup to fishing for the spectacularly popular walleyes of the Missouri River.

The next several years should see what Odermann predicts will be some of the finest walleye fishing anywhere in North America - a September bite that should get the attention of any dedicated walleye angler.

"September, generally, is pretty good," he said. "I think we will be looking at a different kind of fall this year."

Things could change, but Sakakawea and other Missouri River reservoirs are likely to be low on water this month. "It will really have an impact on the Van Hook Arm of the Lake," Odermann noted. "I am uncertain of the full extent of it, but obviously getting your boat in will be a challenge. Then it will impact the baitfish, and that will impact the fishery itself. We saw it in the 1980s, so it will definitely be an impact."


The decline won't be immediate, however. It'll come down the road in a few years, when baitfish and game fish populations have thinned out. But for the next year or two, Sakakawea will enjoy the benefits of having been a healthy lake over the past decade. Walleye numbers are high, and they're feisty, healthy, fat fish.

The angling will be excellent this September, predicts Odermann. In fact, in a rather unfortunate way, the dwindling lake actually improves fishing - temporarily. As the water levels drop, the fish have fewer places to go and stack up in a smaller area of the lake. The result for anglers is that walleyes and other game fish are a lot easier to locate - and, since they'll be hungry, easier to catch.

The early- to mid-September fishing will be best Odermann believes. "Generally, the walleye fishing is quite good until the middle of September," he noted. "At that point you get a lull."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The reason? The lake turns over. The warm water on top of the lake displaces the cool water on the bottom, which becomes the top layer. The disturbance causes the fishing to drop off for a few weeks, but then it kicks in again, and it's better than ever.

"The turnover occurs from middle to end of September," said Odermann, "once you get that first frost. All lakes do it. The fish kind of go dormant. They don't eat; they don't do anything. It is virtually tough to do anything when all that crap is coming off the bottom. It puts them in hibernation mode. Then, after that, they are like a bear; they can't get enough to eat. It picks up again about the first of October. They become kind of predictable - next to deep water, access to a quick food shelf. They are pretty consistent then."

It's all part of the seasonal cycle that walleyes go through - coming out of the dog days of August, when they run deep and can be difficult to catch. By September, says Odermann, they're getting closer to their fall pattern, or staging for it, at least. And when that fall cycle just barely begins to get under way, wise anglers are out on the water, because the fishing picks up.

"The Van Hook Arm is certainly the place to be," Odermann offered. "There is some tremendous crankbait fishing, right at the mouth of the river. The Van Hook Arm itself is a flood area. It is the best place to fish on Sakakawea both for numbers and size. That has been time-tested."

This is the time of the year at which crankbaits are a smart choice. They work well and are exceedingly fun to fish. When they can be used to catch walleyes, they call for an active approach that's preferred by many anglers. And the time's right for them in early fall.

Odermann casts and trolls crankbaits. "If you are catching them on cranks, you can anchor and cast and catch them in a foot of water," he offered. "If there is a breeze and a mudline, they aren't afraid to get up there. The primary forage is rainbow smelt. They go after them in low-water years, and they get them worked into shallow water. It's all about food, and that is where the plankton is. It's not like they will stay there all day, but they get up there in their feeding periods. It's a lot of fun."

All of this is done from a boat, for the most part. Nowadays, anglers can roam broad expanses of water, particularly when they're fishing crankbaits from the back of a boat. "You can cover a lot of ground when you are running your cranks and watching your electronics," said Odermann. "You definitely want to use your electronics."

As noted, the shrinking lake drops makes finding fish less difficult. "The fish literally don't have too many places to hide. They are going to be very accessible."

Many fishermen continue to use the spinners and crawlers they favored during summer, as those rigs continue to do well during fall, too. "They will still hit spinners and crawlers," remarked Odermann. "They will go after anything. But as far as locating good schools of fish and big fish, crankbaits work. The fish really smack them. It is kind of fun. Generally, it is a bottom-walker-spinner bite all summer, so it is fun to switch gears. You can troll those crankbaits 3 mph, so you can really cover some ground. You can take some quality fish out."

For the next two years, Odermann expects the walleye fishing in Sakakawea to be so fabulous that many anglers will come to the lake. But the falling water will likely prove disastrous in the end.

"We saw it happen in the '80s," he recalled. "It looks like the same scenario, if not worse. That will be something new for everybody. But I recall the tremendous impact it had last time. It was kind of devastating for the walleyes. In fact, the Game and Fish Department ended up stocking, due to public demand. It takes 10 years to get things like that straightened out. The long-term eco

nomic impact will be an issue.

"But fishing will be great for a while. I would recommend Lake Sakakawea for the next two years. It will be unbelievable. All the year-classes are there. They are very accessible. Sakakawea is going to be the place to be the next two years."


Farther down the river in South Dakota, the beginning of the fall bite cues walleye guide Brad Garrett to begin concentrating less on Oahe and more on Lake Sharpe.

Garrett is based out of Pierre, where he fishes for September walleyes with some of the swiftest presentations of the entire year.

At Lake Sharpe, the walleyes begin stacking up into what amounts to huge feeding lanes, and anglers working those lanes meet with considerable success; it's a fun and exciting way to fish.

"This time of year, you can catch them on about anything," said Garrett, "Jig-and-minnow, night crawler with a spinner, night crawler harness. People use crankbaits."

The numbers and movements of the walleyes in Lake Sharpe during September are quite impressive. In fact, Garrett's description sounds somewhat reminiscent of the tactical maneuvers of German U-boats in the North Atlantic in 1941. "There are big packs of them that move up and down the lake," he said.

All the while, fishermen are in pursuit of these walleyes - and the sport is excellent. "They are just on a good bite," Garrett offered.

September marks the beginning of angling for larger walleyes. "We see some bigger female fish that time of year, especially on Lake Sharpe," said Garrett. "In July and August we see small males. But in September we see some of the bigger fish coming up to the lake. They are eating shad mainly. You will see schools of shad in the mornings. They will break the surface when it is calm out there. That seems like what they are feeding on. You can watch the seagulls."


Savvy Dakota fishermen also have the opportunity to tap into good fishing for other species during September's walleye bonanza. At North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, there are northern pike and salmon to be caught -- and more.

"There's a little bit of everything going on at that time of year," says angler Kent Odermann. "They have a heck of a salmon run down by the dam that time of year. They do quite well. In September, about anything goes. You don't know what's going to bite.

"There are getting to be tremendous numbers of smallmouth bass in there that are virtually untapped. They'll probably be a big player in the next four to five years."

"You'll catch some white bass and some catfish," says walleye guide Brad Garrett of the fishing he finds at Lake Sharpe. "Between Pierre and the dam, you'll catch an occasional rainbow trout. They're kind of a bonus."

It's hard to beat fishing that good!


Of course, the walleyes key on the shad, which are for them what amounts to the main course in a big smorgasbord. As a result, the walleyes really bunch up.

"They get in big schools," remarked Garrett. "The schools are a couple of miles long. You can make a two-mile-long drift and be in fish the whole way. We drift that time of year. We drift over the current, but a lot of times you have to move faster than that to get the spinnerblades moving."

To get that extra speed, Garrett propels the boat along quietly with an electric trolling motor. The push from the trolling motor combines with the already fast current in much of the river to send boats very quickly down the Missouri.

"If you look at shore, it looks like you're really moving fast," said Garrett. "But if you want to keep your spinnerblades moving, you have to move faster than the current. If you're just drifting slowly, you can't even feel the bite."

If this is done properly, its impact is very noticeable, as it gives the walleyes no choice but to act on a sudden impulse. With natural food and anglers' baits both fairly flying down the river, the opportunity for a walleye to strike is short. As a result, the action can be frantic.

"They hit it, and they're on or they're not," stated Garrett. "When they hit it, they hit it hard."

The crankbait action depends on getting good action from the lure. That's why Garrett makes sure that there's water resistance on the lure, and why it's necessary to move downstream faster than the current. Most fishermen are using Shad Raps in sizes 5 and 7. Wally Divers are also well regarded.

"People have the best luck running against the current," he said. "You are using the current to get action on your crankbait. If you are pulling downstream, you have to go fast. Fish are active. Food is coming by at that rate of speed, so they are used to it. They will hit it pretty hard."

The result of all of this is that the September bite represents some of the year's better fishing. And it's a welcome change of pace from the deep-water fishing necessary during the dead of summer, when fish were lounging about in the depths.

"We will catch a lot of fish this time of year," said Garrett. "Some years are better than others, but a lot of times you can pick the fish you keep."

Someone venturing out on the lake without much experience can just look for the boats. Lots of anglers are out in September, and they tend to sit on the big schools of fish.

To get away from the herds of fishermen, anglers must have more than a casual familiarity with the lake. In fact, to be safe, it's best to know it quite well before venturing too far into the unknown.

"Lake Sharpe is kind of a scary place if you haven't fished there," Garrett noted. "There are trees and sandbars. A lot of people who haven't fished it much don't know how to cross. Being a local, I know how to get there. Sometimes you have to cross 3 to 4 feet of water. You see people come in and they get stuck on a sandbar. As a local, I am kind of at an advantage. I can get away from the crowds. All the people from Minnesota are in a big pack, and they catch fish. But there is always a boat next to them."

The fishing in Lake Sharpe should be quite serviceable through September and into October. "October is real

ly good," said Garrett. "Actually, we catch bigger fish in October."

Hitting the river in the latter part of October, just as pheasant season gets under way, can yield rewarding outcomes; the crowds on the river thin out, as quite a few sportsmen take to the fields after birds. Of course, some sportsmen fish in the morning and go pheasant hunting in the afternoon. But overall, the angling ranks dwindle, leaving the fine fall fishing to a small corps of remaining diehards.

Last fall, Garrett was catching lots of 14 1/2-inch walleyes - a little short of keeper size. This year that year-class of walleyes will have grown into a fine catch.

"Most keepers are running from 16 to 19 inches," remarked Garrett. "And we catch some bigger ones. There are a lot of 2-pound fish. They are in good shape."

Garrett also suggests that you time the fishing day to take into account rising water levels caused by heavier releases from Oahe Dam. "It is a morning bite," he said. "As the water is rising, that is good. By 9 a.m. the water starts to rise. By 10 o'clock there is a pretty good current; that's a good bite. Then, at 3 o'clock, it gets tougher. That is when it gets as high as it gets. It is a midmorning/early-afternoon bite."

That makes for a pleasant fishing day, as anglers are out at a comfortable time during the beginning of the cooling fall weather. And the fishing's picking up at this time of year; walleyes can be caught. For many, there could be no more satisfying way to enjoy autumn.

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