If you’re an avid walleye angler, and are from the upper Midwest, there is no doubt that you have heard of the walleye factory. Otherwise known as Chamberlain, South Dakota.
Chamberlain is a small town nestled on the banks of the Missouri River in central South Dakota on Lake Francis Case. Lake Francis Case is a massive body of water stretching 107 miles long with over 540 miles of shoreline. It has set the stage for many professional walleye tournaments throughout the years. It is still considered one of the best walleye fisheries in North America. What makes Chamberlain so unique is the central location in the heart of some of the best early season walleye fishing found in the Midwest. Some of the surrounding states have closed seasons on walleye fishing until early May, making it impossible to bag a limit of these tasty and toothy fish to satisfy your palate. South Dakota walleye fishing is always open and the fish are always biting, making the early season trip very enticing to non-residents and residents alike.
Beginning in early March, and some years even earlier, once the ice is off just enough to launch a boat, Chamberlain becomes a very popular destination for walleye anglers from all over. After several months of staring down a hole on top of a frozen tundra or being hung up in your cozy home, the itch for open water fishing needs to be scratched and the Missouri River and its hungry walleye await you. Cedar Shore Resort is one of the largest and most accommodating resorts in town. It has its own very large boat ramp, private docks, marina and fish cleaning station nestled in a man-made cove just outside the resort. This makes your trip that much more efficient so you can spend more time on the water and less time driving around.
Lake Francis Case is a very large body of water.
Chamberlain is located on the upper 25% of the river just a few miles below Fort Thompson Dam. Why is this such a hot spot in early spring? The walleye, like they do on most river impoundments, move upstream in late fall to stage for their annual spawning. This takes place every spring usually in April or May depending on which part of the country you are in. Walleye need a few certain things to make their spawning practices more effective. These include rock, gravel, or even a heavy sandy bottom for their eggs to stick too. A little current will also help oxygenate the eggs and water temp as well as a few other factors will kick the spawning ritual into action.
The water on the upper end of these lakes below the dams is usually the first open water making it the warmest. Primarily from the power plant discharge these dams create. There is also a lot of rocks below such dams to prevent erosion from the fast currents. This all makes for the perfect habitat for walleye to spawn. The town of Chamberlain is lined with rocky shores making this a great place for shore anglers as well.
Anglers are able to catch walleye using several different techniques during this time of year.
One key factor to this fishing is to keep it simple. These walleye are here to eat and spawn and usually in that order. As soon as the ice is out the walleye begin a pre-spawn stage where they are eating all they can to build up on calories for the spawn. During this time the male walleye will be the primary species caught. I like to look at the shallow flats on the north side of the river, when possible, in areas like Kiowa Flats and Crow Creek. These areas usually warm up first and will hold what, if any, baitfish or forage there is for the walleye to feed on.
Early ice out water can be very clear.
Keeping your distance by pitching a jig and plastic can be your best bet to find active fish. A jig and a minnow is probably the most effective bait this time of year and there is nothing more simple than that. However, when pitching jigs I prefer to use plastics such as a Northland Tackle Impulse smelt minnow or core swimbait on a 1/8 oz. -1/4 oz. current cutter jig. This particular jig has a bait keeper on it preventing my bait, live or plastic, from being nipped off.
The shape of the jig head also helps me move it through the current more efficiently feeling every bite. If you are a die-hard live bait angler then I would look at a Northland Tackle short shank fireball jig. Many times this shallow water bite won’t occur until midday when the water warms up as the sun becomes overhead.
If the shallow water bites are not going I will move to the inside and outside bends of the river up near Crow Creek and even further up near Fort Thompson Dam. You can rest assured if the gates are open and water is being released from the dam there will be active fish in the area. These inside and outside bends of the river are the most likely paths of travel for the fish as they move up or downstream in search of bait or begin to stage for spawning. The Crow Creek area which is probably the most popular of all in early spring is a bottleneck area where the fish are concentrated and anglers are looking to get a limit of eaters or just numbers of fish for fun. Just look for the crowd of boats and you’ll know you’re in the right area. The probability of that happening in early spring is very likely.
If you’re not into fishing around a crowd then look for these inside bends…
Fish a jig and minnow vertically in 20’+ foot of water. If you’re new to the area, try trolling lead core line with a #5 or #7 Shad Rap or Flicker Shads along these river channel breaks until you locate an active pod of fish. You can cover a lot more water this way. Once active fish are found, drop a jig down and methodically slip drift over them picking them off one at a time.
If you’re a troller, just make a waypoint and turn back around on those fish and take advantage of the active bite. The use of your electronics is going to make all of this much easier. Lake Master has the most accurate mapping for this area that I have seen to date. I use my side imaging to locate those shallow water fish. A good 2D sonar will put you right on top of those deeper fish which are most likely holding tight to the bottom.
As the spring progresses and the spawn kicks in, look to fish around the town of Chamberlain more.
Many large females are caught each year during the spawn on the rocks that line the shorelines of town on both sides of the river. Trolling crankbaits is very effective during the midday during the spawn. It causes reaction bites from some of the bigger fish staged in the deeper water during daylight hours. The fish will move shallow during low light times to spawn but feeding is not a priority at this point.
Your chance for a true trophy is good during this mid-April time frame, but don’t be surprised if it’s a bit tougher than the pre-spawn stage as well. There are always active fish in this area and the numbers are good. Like any fishing, some days are better than others. When working with early spring weather conditions you never know what to expect. Ideally, two to three days of stable weather will make for excellent fishing. We can’t control the weather so plan ahead and hope for the best. This is a walleye anglers dream destination for pure ease and fun of fishing in early spring.