By Nick Harrington
The Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota draw national attention from anglers every year, with the majority of the fishing taking place in the spring. This is for good reason, the river offers the first open water fishing opportunities of the season, sometimes providing fishing out of a boat all winter long. When other walleye seasons across the region close, South Dakota’s year-round open season entices anglers from across the area looking for their favorite fish. While February, March and April provide excellent fishing, May and June can often fly under the radar when in reality, the Missouri River reservoirs are often producing some of the best fishing of the year.
The early summer period, May and June, is often some of the best fishing there is to be had on the Missouri River reservoirs, especially Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case. This is because of a “perfect storm” scenario that develops within the fishery. Fish are done spawning and are ready to begin focusing on eating again and replenishing the energy they lost during their spawning efforts. Warming water temperatures also have their energetic demands higher, making their need for food that much greater. However, there is often not an incredible amount of forage to keep them satisfied, making an angler’s offering look very enticing!
The main forage of both Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case is gizzard shad. This is important to note, because many young gizzard shad will die over the winter months when water temperatures drop. Never fear, it only takes a small population of adults to fuel the forage base all summer long. As June transitions into July and the rest of summer, fishing can slow down because now there is an abundance of shad in the system. This is what leads to the “summertime blues” many anglers experience.
While Sharpe and Francis Case are often in the peak of walleye fishing this time of year, Lake Oahe begins to emerge from her winter slumber. Unlike the two reservoirs below, Oahe is a cold water fishery. This means the lake is often several months behind the other reservoirs and may not even be ready for boats on the lower-end until May. In addition to water temperatures being significantly cooler, Oahe offers a completely different forage base.
Oahe offers both a cold and warm water forage base. The lake is driven by it’s cold water species, which are lake herring and smelt. Contrary to gizzard shad on Sharpe and Francis Case, these smelt give walleyes on Oahe a forage base all year. This means Oahe walleye enjoy a longer growing season and can often reach significantly larger sizes much quicker than the fish in the reservoirs below.
Although the three reservoirs may have completely different personalities, the type of fishing this time of year really stays about the same. On Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case, fish are searching for prey as the summer peak takes full force. On Oahe, water temperatures are beginning to warm and fish are becoming more and more active. This means regardless of what reservoir you are fishing, you can expect roughly the same presentations to work. Let’s take a look at the best options.
Serve the Meal
Location and presentation are the two biggest factors when it comes to catching walleye. This is true year-round, but I feel location is especially true during this time of year. The fish want to eat, you just need to serve them their meal. You need to know where the fish are and how they want their meal served to them.
On Sharpe and Francis Case, look for walleyes to be actively searching for food on main-lake flats. Bottom bouncing is the perfect option for covering water and contacting fish. The flats you are fishing are often quite large, with some of your trolling passes going even up to a mile or more. Fish will often be scattered along these flats in pods, meaning you could go 15-20 minutes without a bite then pick up 3 or 4 very quickly. On Oahe, fishing long points is a favorite of many walleye anglers as well.
Bottom bouncing allows you to cover water, but still be able to entice both aggressive and neutral fish. Fish are on these flats looking for food and will often strike when they see the meal they are looking for. Think of yourself as a server, you need to find where your customers are and give them what they want!
Add Some Spice
Walleye, much like people, are more attracted by a meal that offers some spice. Much like how walleye filets are best served with some additional seasoning, walleye feel the same way about their meals as well. Adding some spice to your rig will not only help draw fish to your bait, it encourages them to seal the deal too!
Presentation this time of year is not about trying to trick them or forcing them to eat. Fish are hungry and they are looking for food, give them what they want. Minnows are going to be the top option early in May, with the bite shifting to nightcrawlers generally through about June. While a plain offering can certainly catch fish, adding some spice in the form of color, flash and vibration will help draw attention to your bait and trigger strikes.
The best way to add spice is through a compact blade. Mack’s Lure Smile Blades have taken the Missouri River by storm throughout the past several years. Guide Mason Propst of Propst Professional Anglers agrees, “we always have Smile Blades out when we’re bottom bouncing, they’re just so good”, he says. Very similar to the time-tested helicopter blades, Smile Blades offer additional versatility in the ability to tweak how they fish and a wide array of colors.
The .8” Smile Blade is the perfect offering this time of year, because it adds the perfect amount of flash, vibration and color without stealing the show from the main course. “I like the white and pink and pink and silver”, says Propst, “all blue or all purple are good ones too.” It is tough to argue with Propst’s choices, but do not be afraid to drop down chartreuse colors as well.
Once I have the blade on I also have another option to make the fish’s meal perfect for them. The Smile Blades can easily be tweaked to change the vibration and action they produce. A wide blade angle produces a slow, rolling wobble while a narrow blade angle can give a more aggressive shake and spin. Once you’ve found the color the fish prefer, fine tune your action to maximize your success.
There are various other types of spices you can put on your line as well. A small size 0 blade is the perfect option for achieving that same goal of adding just a touch of flash and vibration to your bait. Silver and gold are top options for this presentation. As June rolls on, bump your blade up to a size 2 as the water warms and fish continue to get more and more aggressive.
It is tough to beat the bite offered on the Missouri River reservoirs throughout May and June. Whether you are bottom bouncing the expansive flats on Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case or working your way along points on Lake Oahe, the fish are often hungry and ready to eat! Know what is on the menu, where they are waiting for their food and serve them up exactly what they are looking for! Good fishing!