June 22, 2021
Note: This article was featured in the West edition of May’s Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe
With more sprawling coastline than the state of California and only a handful of developed access points, Fort Peck Reservoir, encircled almost entirely by wildlife-rich public land, is one of those uncut gems of the Northern Plains.
This eastern Montana reservoir—the largest impoundment of the Missouri River in Montana—is best known for its walleyes. It’s a spot to catch limits but also numbers of double-digit marble-eyes on a variety of standard presentations.
But increasing numbers of anglers are heading to Fort Peck for its sleeper smallmouths, its excellent cold-water lake trout and chinook salmon, and for its surly northern pike. In short, it’s a multi-species fishery masquerading as a world-class walleye lake.
Unlike the best walleye waters of Minnesota and the Canadian Shield, Fort Peck has a wide variety of shallow-water habitat combined with a warm-water nutrient load that grows big fish. In that way, it’s more like the best reservoirs of the inland Northwest—think Idaho’s Dworshak, the upper Columbia River impoundments, and Colorado’s Aurora and John Martin reservoirs.
THE CASE FOR WALLEYES
"Walleyes account for something like 70 percent of angling pressure on Fort Peck," says Heath Headley, the reservoir biologist for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "Nothing else is even close, and on some weekends in June and July, you’re talking hundreds or even thousands of boats on the water."
Headley is referring to the high season on Fort Peck, those bluebird summer days when the prairie sun is high and the wind is low, when boaters pulling leech-baited bottom-bouncers routinely take limits of eater-sized walleyes along the lake’s thousands of points.
The walleye fishing can be so good here that anglers from half a dozen neighboring states descend on Fort Peck in June and swarm the few accessible launches and campsites. More on that in a bit.
For now, let’s talk about the best time to fish this sprawling reservoir. If you can handle the conditions—cold winds, slick perimeter roads, low catch rates—early May can be killer. The ice has just left the lake, and big post-spawn walleyes are stacked in Fort Peck’s Big Dry Arm.
That’s the jut of water just south of the dam, and it holds the best natural spawning habitat in the lake. It’s where Headley’s crew spawns walleyes for its hatchery propagation efforts, and it’s where to catch a 12- to 14-pound hen in May.
By June, walleyes are spreading out across the lake, and the pressure follows the distribution of fish. That makes this a good time to talk about Fort Peck’s access points. The best and most accessible spots are those near Fort Peck Dam. The Fort Peck Marina has full-service fuel, bait, groceries and boat-mooring services. Nearby access points, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, include Flat Lake on the east side of the dam and Duck Creek, south of the marina. Down the Big Dry Arm, Rock Creek has the best facilities, but you’ll also find launches and camping facilities at Nelson Creek. Up the main arm of the lake, launches are at the end of long, often treacherous roads: at The Pines, Bone Trail and Fourchette Bay.
On the south shore of the lake, Hell Creek State Park has the best facilities, but it’s 25 miles down a weld-busting gravel road north of the town of Jordan. Other (even more remote) launches are at Devils Creek and Crooked Creek. This is all to say that if you get on Fort Peck, you’d done your share of driving, navigating remote roads and enduring tough conditions. The wind is real here, and there will be days when the wind blows so hard that any boat—regardless of size and build—can be in trouble on Fort Peck. Stay in touch with weather reports, and always pack enough food that you can endure a couple days of being stranded miles from help.
But the reward of getting on the lake in spring or early summer is that you’ll have hundreds of miles of shoreline habitat—gumbo points, gravel shoals, shallow coves—that hold walleyes. The strategy for this season is to troll in 12 to 20 feet of water, covering plenty of habitat types while pulling standard walleye rigs: bottom-bouncers and spinner rigs baited with either nightcrawlers or leeches. Go-to colors are chartreuse, fire-tiger, and blue-and-silver. This can also be a good time of year to pull crankbaits in those same colors.
Take a page from the Governor’s Cup Walleye Tournament, held annually the second weekend in July. A full field of 200 two-angler teams descend on the lake—this year’s tournament is July 8 to 10—and if you’re looking for someone to introduce you to Fort Peck’s expansive variety, you might tap the cadre of licensed guides or outfitters who fish the "Guv Cup."
Shoreline-oriented walleye tend to be in the 12- to 20-inch class—good eating-sized fish. But Fort Peck has a population of magnum walleyes that pull offshore, targeting the lake’s schools of cisco, or lake herring, that suspend over deeper water. For these fish, anglers need sophisticated electronics, but the reward is big fish in the 12- to 16-pound range, along with oversized northern pike and lake trout.
In the upper reaches of the lake in the summer months, pike are available for anyone working shoreline habitat, especially weed beds where crankbaits, spinnerbaits and even topwaters are killer. Smallmouth bass to 5 pounds are hanging in submerged rock piles and will take drop-shot rigs and rattling crankbaits.
You can catch odd species such as freshwater drum, channel catfish, shovelnose sturgeon, crappie and perch on just about any point or break on Fort Peck, cementing its reputation as a multi-species destination.
That reputation is enhanced come August. The lake has one of the few populations of landlocked chinook salmon in the Great Plains. These are Pacific salmon that came to Fort Peck via the Great Lakes, and they support the second-most-popular fishery on the lake, says Headley. About 15 percent of angling pressure on Fort Peck is from salmon anglers, who descend on the dam starting in early August to troll spoons and flasher-and-squid combinations for king salmon to 25 pounds. In fact, the state-record chinook was taken just last August, a 32-pound behemoth.
When the salmon aren’t biting, another deep-water salmonid probably is. Lake trout are consistently available in Fort Peck’s deepest water behind the dam, hugging the bottom in anywhere from 120 to 180 feet of water. You can catch them by trolling downriggers pulling squids or by jigging heavy lead-heads baited with a minnow.
GUIDES & TACKLE
The ratio of guides to water is probably lower on Fort Peck than most Western reservoirs, but you can Google most legitimate guides.
Some of the best are Dale and Jim Gilbert (montanawalleye.com) and Matt Sunderman (fortpeckguide.com).
Or you can inquire locally at a pair of the best resources for anglers on the lake. The first is Lakeridge Bait & Tackle in Fort Peck (406-526-3597), which also has rental cabins. Or check in with Hell Creek State Park for fishing reports, references for guides, and conditions on the south shore of Fort Peck.
FORT PECK LODGING
This is remote country, and most lakeside amenities are rated more by the number and size of fish that their clients catch than by the fluff of their pillows or the quality of their food.
For historic lodging, it’s hard to beat Fort Peck Hotel (thefortpeckhotel.com) just below Fort Peck Dam. Or rent cabins at Lakeridge Bait & Tackle (406-526-3597). The best full hook-up campground is maintained by the Corps of Engineers at Downstream Campground, but other hook-ups are available elsewhere around Fort Peck Dam. For remote camping, check out Hell Creek State Park, which has a variety of hook-up and primitive campsites.