By: Matt Liebel – Liebel’s Guide Service
Lake Sakakawea is the 3rd largest reservoir in the US, and with more shoreline than the coast of California, it can seem daunting for someone coming here for the first time. It doesn’t have to be scary; with the Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) approach you can be fishing your way to limits quickly.
Al and Ron Linder pioneered the formula F+L+P=Success. If you put that to work on Sakakawea you are bound to catch fish. Don’t worry it’s a SIMPLE formula; that doesn’t require the use of a calculator. F stands for…you guessed it, fish! L stands for location, and P stands for presentations. If you add those 3 together you will have success, it’s that simple! I can already hear some of you saying (in a sarcastic tone) oh yeah just simple…. C’mon, give us the goods! Ok, Ok, let’s break down this huge lake and make it simple.
The first thing to look at when applying the FLP formula is you have to fish where there are fish. Lake Sakakawea has fish…. Lots of fish. North Dakota Game and Fish Department surveys indicate near-record high walleye populations with a good number of year classes present. There are plenty of good eater size fish to take home and also a good number of larger, CPR (Catch, Photo, & RELEASE) fish. We recommend to all our clients that all fish over 23” are released to fight another day.
One note on those eater fish, North Dakota Game and Fish is in the process of revising their fishing regulations and there was talk of new fish transportation regulations. Please read those carefully when the new regulations are released on April 1st. The possession limit for walleyes is 10 per person so please be courteous and take only what you are allowed and will use. Another note on regulations is there will be new ANS (Aquatic Nuisance Species) requirements for all boats. There is a new $15 ANS sticker that all boats must-have. For boats registered in North Dakota that fee is charged when you renew your registration in 2020. For boats registered out of state a yearly $15, ANS sticker must be displayed when on ND waters.
Now that we know the fish are present, let’s talk a little bit about walleyes because understanding the fish you are after is another important part of the formula. Walleyes are walleyes, wherever they are found in North America. They follow similar patterns everywhere.
F is probably the simplest part of this equation on Sakakawea; next, we will look into the L.
Sakakawea has all sorts of structure but we can really narrow it down to 3 specific structures. Main lake points, flats, and large bays are the 3 predominant areas to target on your adventure. Using your electronics will be a big help, rarely do you catch fish in an area where you don’t mark fish. You pay good money for those graphs, learn their capabilities and trust them! Reservoir fish have a tendency of being here today and gone tomorrow so watch those graphs and move on if you don’t mark fish.
Beginning in late fall and throughout the winter many fish start migrating up the 2 main rivers coming into Lake Sakakawea. The Missouri and Little Missouri rivers are the largest rivers coming in and those areas are great areas to start your search in the spring as they usually warm up the fastest. While river fishing might sound scary, you don’t actually need to go into the true river, you are still in what we would call the reservoir. These reservoir parts hold plenty of fish, the true river is often dirty from runoff anyways. In the early spring and into early June water temperature is the main factor I use when determining location. Generally, I’m looking for the warmest water.
The Little Missouri Arm is a large area with flats way up the river, then as you work out it has more rocky points along with a few bays that will hold fish. The Little Missouri is smaller than the Missouri, especially when it gets to the true river so it often holds less fish than the larger Missouri although there are still really good numbers. In 2017 when the NWT was on Sakakawea; many of the anglers fished the Little Missouri Arm. This area has many bends that protect it from many winds. This area has 3 access points at Little Missouri Bay, Mackenzie Bay, and Charging Eagle Bay.
The Missouri flows into Lake Sakakawea up by Williston, this is the area where the 2017 NWT tournament was won. This area has a few more access points, which is very helpful because it is less protected on the main lake, any east or west wind of 15mph will create some pretty large swells. The north side of the lake, east of Williston has 4 different access points (Lewis and Clark State Park, Lunds Landing, Little Beaver Bay & White Earth Bay), the south shore has 1 access area at Tobacco Gardens.
As the water temps continue to rise the fish spread out and can be found throughout the system. By early to mid-June the bite is usually good throughout the reservoir. The New Town area provides many access points that can be fished in a variety of wind conditions. The east end around Garrison has been holding more smelt lately so that area holds some of the chunkiest walleyes you will ever see.
Once you have determined where you will launch then the map work begins. Like I had mentioned before 3 main areas should be your target, the flats, main lake points, and back bays. Early in the spring look for sand/gravel areas, as those are the areas that walleyes use to spawn. Early season and even into mid-summer there are catchable walleyes shallow. We rarely fish deeper than 15ft before July.
3 basic presentations produce walleyes on a regular basis. Pitching, Cranking, and Bottom bouncing are the staples here. You don’t need to try all sorts of crazy new techniques to fill your livewell and put those tasty fillets on the table.
Pitching jigs or crankbaits on main lake points or in the back bays can be one of the most fun bites of the year. The “tick” of the walleye inhaling that jig or the rod stopping strike on a crankbait is exhilarating. A 1/4oz jig pitched up shallow and worked back to the boat with a slow lift/drop retrieve works wonders. Most days you don’t need to go any lighter than a 1/4oz but on windy days you may want to give the 3/8oz a look. The key is to make sure to maintain bottom contact. The heavier jigs also help you work down the steeper breaks better, where a light jig will glide all the way down and out with the bait out of the strike zone. I prefer to use Berkley Nanofil in 10lb test since it casts so well. Be sure to inspect the line often as it can fray faster than fireline. A jig tipped with a minnow or crawler is tough to beat but I’ve given up live bait on pitched jigs unless we are in major cold front conditions. The new Salmo soft plastics are a great place to start. The walleye shad is a classic paddle tail swimbait in 3” and 4” versions available in great Sakakawea colors. As for crankbaits, a #5 Salmo hornet is hard to beat.
When fishing the large flats on Sakakawea get those crankbaits out and cover some water! I prefer to run 2 long rods with 10lb Berkley fireline and then 2 shorty rods with lead core. Even though we are fishing shallow the lead core allows you to stagger your line out and those inside lure track the boat better and help reduce tangles. Properly tuned crankbaits also really help eliminate those tangles as well. Salmo crankbaits are all hand-tuned and tank-tested, the Salmo Perch 8 was a great lure for me last summer, and as always the hornet has been voted the best walleye crankbait. These reservoir walleyes don’t mind the speed, if water temps are above 63 I’m starting at 2.5mph, if below I’m starting at 2.0mph and adjusting from there.
The last technique is a reservoir standby, a bottom bouncer trolled with some variation of a spinner (I prefer a Mack’s Smile blade), lindy rig, or slow death rig will produce. This can be used in almost all locations. A great way to cover water on the flats if trolling crankbaits is not your thing, but can also effectively be trolled along the contours of those main lake points and back bays. One mistake I often see people make is using too light of bottom bouncers. A 1oz bottom bouncer is generally the lightest I run, as we get deeper I add more weight. If you let that bottom bouncer drag with too much line out you defeat the purpose of the bottom bouncer. The wire on the bottom is meant to go through the snags, but if the entire bouncer is dragging it will snag up just like any other sinker. Start each day with a variation of rigs and baits then let the fish tell you what they want. Minnows, leeches, and crawlers all have their days. My starting speed is 1.0mph and if they bite that I increase the speed until I see a decrease in bites, then dial in the speed. With so much water to cover I want to put the baits in front of as many fish as possible.
While Lake Sakakawea can seem very daunting it is very angler friendly in the fact there are lots of fish that like to eat! We offer fully guided fishing trips beginning in the spring shortly after ice-out (usually mid-April). Every year we take out clients for a day or two to show them the ropes and then they continue on their own. We can accommodate almost any size group large or small. Our main busy season is June through August. Give Liebel’s guide service a call at 701-770-6746 to schedule your fishing adventure today, let us help you reduce the learning curve on the giant and beautiful body of water! It’s fishing, not rocket science, KISS it and KISS those tasty walleyes!