From the Dakotas to Kansas, here’s your checklist for hot fishing this season.
Great Plains anglers have many choices where to fish these days. Huge reservoirs, tiny farm ponds, sprawling natural lakes and mighty rivers — each hold fish populations as diverse as the habitat where they live.
Images by Vic Dunaway
Devils Lake, ND | Walleyes
Ice-fishermen flock to Devils Lake, in northeast North Dakota, every January when the hot walleye bite develops on the state’s largest natural lake. The shallow western end of the lake is popular early in the season. Underwater points, submerged humps, flooded timber and live weeds provide a great variety of spots for fishermen to target. Rocky areas are also productive. The fish are suckers for live minnows, pinned simply to a plain hook, but a flashy jig tipped with a minnow can be better. Jigging spoons can bring great results, too. Good colors include gold, silver, chartreuse and fire-tiger.
OTHER OPTIONS: Merritt Reservoir, NE, Walleyes: Fish bottom structure with a jig-minnow combination during low-light periods. Olive Creek Lake, NE, Bluegills: Get out on safe ice to target bluegills, hitting tiny ice jigs tipped with bee moths.
Lake Sakakawea, ND | Northern Pike
Ice-fishermen who regularly visit Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota know this sprawling impoundment is absolutely teeming with the toothy fish! These are not small hammer-handle pike, either. In fact, the state-record northern pike — 37 pounds, 8 ounces — was caught here in 1968. Sakakawea grows large pike due, in part, to the abundance of forage fish. Smelt are a primary forage species for northern. Bays, coves and creek arms draw scores of anglers. Fishermen should concentrate on break-lines, points and feeding flats near the river channel. The expansive Van Hook Arm is especially popular.
OTHER OPTIONS: Missouri River, ND, Walleyes: Walleyes should be taking minnows and jig-minnow combos along shoreline gravel bars. Bitter Lake, SD, Yellow Perch: Use jigging spoons tipped with minnow heads to locate active perch.
Lke Ogallala, NE | Rainbow Trout
Great Plains trout anglers come from far and wide to try their luck at Lake Ogallala in west-central Nebraska. The open-water rainbow-trout fishing at this cold, 320-acre lake can be red hot. Lake Ogallala is a “bay” situated directly below Kingsley Dam on Lake McConaughy. Regular trout stockings keep the population strong. Individual hold-over trout grow large. Many anglers use natural baits — worms and minnows — and processed baits, such as Berkley PowerBait and salmon eggs. In-line spinners and small spoons are favored by spin-tackle anglers, while fly-fishermen work dry flies, nymphs and streamers in the North Platte River, downstream from Ogallala Dam.
OTHER OPTIONS: Lake McConaughy, NE, Walleyes: Fish curly-tailed jigs along submerged points to find active walleyes. Missouri River, NE/SD, Sauger: Rising river temps in spring will trigger sauger to move upstream and begin feeding.
Lake McConaughy, NE | Walleyes
Anyone who fishes Lake Ogallala surely knows about big Lake McConaughy right next door. At more than 37,000 acres big, McConaughy is one of the state’s premier walleye fisheries. “Big Mac” produced the state-record walleye in 1971— a fish of 16 pounds, 2 ounces. Trophy-sized walleyes congregate this month at the east end of the lake near the dam for their annual spawning run. Both shore anglers and boaters get in on the action. Boaters troll a variety of shad-imitating stickbaits and crankbaits along the face of the dam and in the Spillway Bay area. Shore fishermen cast deep-diving crankbaits and jig-minnow combinations along the dam.
OTHER OPTIONS: Lake Oahe, ND, Crappies: Target spring crappies with small shiners in one of the lake’s innumerable creek arms. Lake Audubon, ND, Smallmouth Bass: Work crayfish-imitating crankbaits or tube jigs along rocky points, islands and wind-blown shorelines.
Valentine NWR, NE | Largemouth Bass
Nine lakes for fishing lie on Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, and the spring bass fishing can be very good, especially if the weather cooperates with several warm days in a row. State fisheries officials sampled four of the lakes in 2017 and found West Long Lake holds the highest bass density. Most bass were not large (under 12 inches), but the scrappy largemouths provide plenty of action for fishermen, who may also connect with bass upward of 20 inches in any one of the lakes. Bass anglers should use shallow-running lures or soft-plastics. Weedless lures are perfect for targeting bass in the reeds, grasses and other emerging vegetation.
OTHER OPTIONS: Missouri River, KS, Channel Cats: Channel cats eat almost any natural bait, and this month they will be active near the shoreline. La Cygne Lake, KS, Largemouth Bass: Bass will be active early and late in the day on spinnerbaits and soft-plastics.
Lake Oahe, ND/SD | Walleyes
Lake Oahe is the largest of the big impoundments on the Missouri River; it covers more than 370,000 surface acres, stretching from Oahe Dam north of Pierre, South Dakota, continuing north, deep into North Dakota. Hundreds of small creek arms, quiet coves, flooded timber, underwater points, river channels and rocky structure provide perfect habitat for its walleyes of all sizes. In May 2018, state fisheries biologists netted a behemoth female walleye, weighing 17 pounds in the Grand River arm of Lake Oahe. June is a good time to give them a try, as Oahe’s walleye fishing heats up. Troll minnow-imitating stickbaits along river drop-offs or hop curly-tailed jigs over submerged gravel bars. Weight-forward spinners, tipped with a night crawler or leech are also good, and jig-minnow combinations can be dynamite around submerged points.
OTHER OPTIONS: Lake Metigoshe, ND, Bluegills: Big bluegills spawn in the shallows and will hit tiny jigs tipped with bee moths. Missouri River, KS, Flathead Catfish: Fish for massive flatheads at night using large live baits like bluegills, green sunfish, suckers or other hardy fishes.
Elk City Reservoir, KS | Flathead Catfish
Catfish anglers in the Great Plains chase trophy cats in many places, but a perennial favorite destination is Elk City Reservoir near Independence, Kansas. This 4,500-acre impoundment is home to three species of catfish: channel cats, blue cats and flathead catfish. The flatheads draw the most interest from the trophy hunters. In 1998, the all-tackle, world-record flathead catfish was caught here, weighing a staggering 123 pounds, 9 ounces. Elk City Reservoir has lots of rocky shorelines with plenty of boulders, rock ledges and rocky holes where big flatheads can hide. They often sit in these sheltered spots during the day and prowl after dark, looking for live fish to eat. Suspend a large baitfish under a float and let it swim.
OTHER OPTIONS: Lake Sharpe, SD, Smallmouth Bass: Use minnow-imitating stickbaits or shad-sized crankbaits around current edges for big smallmouths. Milford Reservoir, KS, Blue Catfish: Drifting whole (or cut) shad over feeding flats can be productive when targeting actively-feeding blue cats.
Kansas River, KS | Blue Catfish
The Kansas River is a great catfish destination for serious catfish hunters. From Junction City to its confluence with the Missouri River at the Kansas/Missouri border at Kansas City, the “Kaw” is home to a tremendous blue catfish population. One of the previous Kansas state-record blue cats — 94 pounds — was caught from the Kaw, and even bigger blues likely swim there. The current state-record weighed 102.8 pounds and was caught from the adjacent Missouri River. Trophy-sized blues often hold in the deep troughs of the main river channel. Use a boat to dead-drift with the current, presenting fresh cut-bait through the depths.
OTHER OPTIONS: Wilson Reservoir, KS, Striped Bass: Stripers chase shad in the river channel toward the lower end of the lake. Troll shad-imitating plugs or chrome spoons. Harlan County Reservoir, NE, White Bass: Schools of white bass can be targeted at the mouths of creek arms by casting jig-and-minnow combos.
Red River, ND | Channel Catfish
There are many tremendous catfish rivers in the Great Plains states, but the stand-out is the Red River, on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota. The unlikely star of the Red River is actually the smallest of the primary catfish species, but these channel cats are not small. The Red’s average channel cat weighs 10 to 12 pounds; 20-pounders are relatively common; and 30-pounders are caught from time to time. Channel catfish will eat just about anything, but the bigger fish seem to prefer whole fish or fresh cut-bait. Many anglers use locally caught fish like creek chubs, mooneyes, goldeyes or redhorse suckers. Cut these into steaks, chunks or fillets and change them often to keep them fresh.
OTHER OPTIONS: Glen Elder Reservoir, KS, White Bass: White bass often “bust” shad on the surface. Get a lure into the fray to experience amazing action. Missouri River, KS, Blue Cats: Drift large cut-baits through deeper river channel troughs to connect with big blues.
Lake Sharpe, SD | Walleyes
Walleye anglers visiting Lake Sharpe this fall should find plenty of marble-eyed fish. This large impoundment on the Missouri River flows from Pierre to Big Bend Dam near Fort Thompson, South Dakota. It is home to huge numbers of toothy walleyes among the shifting sand bars, root wads, submerged trees. Walleyes often school-up in fall, and the action only gets better moving into November. Productive baits are similar to those on other walleye waters: night crawler harnesses, leeches, jig-minnow combos and artificial lures, such as shad-imitating crankbaits. Anglers looking for trophy-sized fish often ramp up the size of their baits. Big fish need bigger meals, and these walleyes are eating as much as possible in preparation for winter.
OTHER OPTIONS: Elwood Reservoir, NE, Wipers: Look for schools of baitfish on your electronics or watch for wipers crashing bait on the surface. Calamus Reservoir, NE, Muskies: Large swimbaits do a good job of imitating the fish muskies normally eat.
Coffey County Lake, KS | Smallmouth Bass
Coffey County Lake near Burlington, Kansas, is a fisherman’s dream. The 5,090-acre, cooling-water impoundment for Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station “generates” an unseasonable warm fishing environment in winter. The lake is loaded with predator fish to keep the resident gizzard shad population in check: largemouth bass, wipers, blue catfish and channel cats, just to name a few. But feisty smallmouth bass are the targets of many anglers here, and those anglers are rarely disappointed. Popular sites include the long riprap-lined dikes and the extensive rocky shorelines. Bass anglers use shad-imitating plugs and crankbaits to “match the hatch,” but twister-tailed jigs, bounced along the bottom, are also productive. Catch-and-release fishing is encouraged, and special regs limit anglers’ creels per day to just two bass longer than 18 inches.
OTHER OPTIONS: Merritt Reservoir, NE, Muskies: Big muskies can often be triggered into striking with a figure-8 maneuver at the end of a retrieve. Lake Sakakawea, ND, Walleyes: Troll minnow-imitating crankbaitsalong river channel break-lines.
Waubay Lake, SD | Yellow Perch
Perch fishermen congregate on South Dakota’s Waubay Lake as soon as safe-ice sets up. This sprawling lake features plenty of bays, coves, points and submerged timber — all sites that produce fish winterlong. Many of those are walleyes, but jumbo perch that weigh more than a pound will keep the action steady. Waubay’s yellow perch grow even larger, many tipping the scales to 2 pounds or more. Live minnows are always productive perch baits, but many of the glacial lakes of South Dakota are teeming with another perch favorite: freshwater shrimp. Live wigglers (mayfly larva) are a good substitute for shrimp. Bring plenty of them to help you cull your catch. Other good live baits include red wigglers, bee moths and spikes.
OTHER OPTIONS: Lake Francis Case, SD, Walleyes: Flashy jigging spoons can attract walleyes from a distance and help anglers locate active fish. Davis Creek Reservoir, NE, Crappies: Crappies can be found suspending anywhere in the water column. Watch your electronics to know how deep to fish