September 1, 2008

Fall Fishing on the Missouri is Heating Up

Something happened on the way to another long, dry season for the Missouri River System: Mother Nature smiled in her own quirky way, flooding the southern basin, spewing localized rainstorms and teasing us with mountain snowfall.

As a result, moisture flowed into the river system. Anglers discovered something they hadn't experienced since almost the beginning of the new millennium.

Lake Oahe reappeared in North Dakota.

For the first time since at least 2003, the Missouri River wasn't a mere slithering ribbon of blue, stretching well into South Dakota before bearing any resemblance to a reservoir. Lake Sakakawea's southern sister reservoir gained enough water for anglers to launch boats into Oahe from the North Dakota side of the border.

And launch boats, they did. They launched from Langelier's, Beaver Bay and Cattail Bay.

And they caught fish.

The summer of 2008 provided good walleye fishing throughout much of the Missouri River, said Paul Bailey, N.D. Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist, Bismarck. Spring fishing was a continuation of a lengthy, successful winter of open water fishing below Garrison Dam.

Bailey, like many anglers, expects another good walleye bite on the Missouri River this fall, as well.

The nicest Missouri River walleye typically show up in live wells and on stringers in the spring and fall, Bailey said. In the spring, walleye are on a feeding binge after spawning. In the fall, females build their energy reserves and feed more aggressively than they do in the summer and winter.

"That makes them more susceptible to angling," Bailey said.

Lake Oahe fared better in this recent drought than it in did during the dry years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bailey said. Oahe Dam's mid-level intake siphons less cold water, unlike Lake Sakakawea, whose intake is located at the bottom of Garrison Dam and takes the coldest lake water. Because of the intake's location, Sakakawea's cold-water habitat loss is compounded with low lake levels.

With better habitat in the river and what remained of Lake Oahe in South Dakota, rainbow smelt populations continued to provide important forage in Lake Oahe and the Missouri River below Garrison Dam. The river and Oahe also have a greater variety of other forage fish than Sakakawea, including white suckers, long-nosed suckers, river carp and emerald shiners.

In addition, gizzard shad are in Lake Oahe and they migrate up and down the river. They typically begin appearing around the Bismarck-Mandan stretch of the river around mid-August, Bailey said. Biologists conduct fall reproduction testing in early September, which also provides indications of the amount of gizzard shad moving upriver in the fall, he said.

With better forage in the Missouri River than Lake Sakakawea, inch-for-inch, many river walleye weigh more than their Lake Sakakwea counterparts measuring the same length.

Now that Lake Oahe is back in North Dakota, its higher water levels offer several advantages. The reservoir and Missouri River benefit long-term, especially forage, said Bailey.

In the short-term, this year's rise was too late for early spawning species. However, late spawning species, such as forage fish, crappie and white bass, likely benefited with higher water levels.

Then, next spring - and in coming years - other species, such as walleye, northern pike, and perch, can reap the benefits of improved spawning habitat.

In the coming years, the river could get even better than it already is.

The only caution with higher Oahe levels is anglers need to watch for floating logs and trees, said Dakota Tackle's Wade Anderson.

In the recent lean years, fewer walleye seemed to swim as far north upriver with lower water levels in Oahe, Anderson said. Both Anderson and Bailey anticipate a good fall walleye bite as fish head past Bismarck-Mandan.

Anderson expects tried-and-true fall river techniques - jigs and minnows - to remain successful, regardless of water levels.

However, Anderson said increasing numbers of anglers are using artificial bait, such as Gulp, which is a food product and not petroleum-based plastic. North Dakota walleye anglers traditionally weren't keen on artificial bait, Anderson said, but the newer products are enticing some anglers to make a switch.

Like Lake Oahe, Lake Sakakawea surprised anglers, bureaucrats, and just about everyone in between by rising nearly 10 feet higher than expected. Recent low water conditions took a toll on fall salmon fishing, but there might be good news in 2008 because of improved lake levels.

While the days of 20-pound-plus salmon from Lake Sakakawea seem like warm, fuzzy and distant memories, anglers are starting to see some salmon tip the scales at 10-plus pounds.

And they look healthy and feisty, not like some pathetic creature from the deep.

Try working traditional areas, such as the face of the dam, said Pick City's Scott Hobbs. But don't forget working north along the Riverdale Bluffs over to Deadman's Bay. In addition, higher lake elevations also mean anglers can once again fish for salmon around the overlook and spillway apron. Like fishing Lake Oahe in North Dakota, fishing for salmon around the overlook hasn't been an option in recent years.

The only drawback is flooded vegetation makes it more difficult for salmon shore-fishing.

The bottom line is anglers could find a nice fall Missouri River walleye bite up to ice-over. Lake Sakakawea once again has fall salmon fishing potential.

Plus, they're located where people can hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon - or vice-versa - with opportunities for both.

(c) 2008 Bismarck Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.