Early Season Buffet on the Missouri River

The Missouri River becomes the epicenter of walleye fishing all across the region in early spring.  The river presents the first open water opportunities, often in mid-to-late February or early March.  Anglers flock from across the state, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and everywhere in-between.  The capital of walleye fishing in the Midwest instantly becomes Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Lake Francis Case often is the focal point of angling pressure. However, up and down the river can also produce hot fishing.  What truly makes the Missouri River such a destination is that any angler can fish their preferred way and still catch fish.  The ability to catch multiple species with multiple techniques makes this fishery truly a buffet table for anglers.

Veteran angler and guide on the Missouri River, Mason Propst, recognize these opportunities and capitalizes on them. “Springtime is my absolute favorite time to fish on the river.  You can basically go out and pick any tactics you want to fish and catch fish doing it” Propst says, “There’s just such a wide variety of techniques you can use whether it’s bottom bouncing, pull out the lead core or casting.”

The flowing water out of Big Bend Dam in Fort Thompson and Oahe Dam North of Pierre helps both Lake Francis Case and Lake Sharpe open up quickly.  Further downstream, Fort Randall Dam flows into Lewis and Clark Lake and ultimately out of Gavin’s Point Dam.  Tributaries feeding into the river do their part to eat away at ice and get warmer water into the reservoir.

Bottom Bouncing

Among the most popular tributaries to fish are Crow Creek and the White River.  Crow Creek is upstream of Chamberlain while the White River is downstream.  Boats leaving town often equally distribute North and South as both areas can produce excellent fishing.

Bottom bouncing is a top tactic in these areas as it allows anglers to effectively cover large flats to find pods of active fish.  Bottom bouncing with plain hooks, small Mack’s Lure Smile Blades or other small Colorado or Indiana blades with minnows is often the perfect presentation to coax biters.  It’s a good idea to vary your blade or snell selection often until you can put together a pattern for what fish are preferring that day.

A good rule of thumb is to start with all the different presentations in the boat.  Pay attention to what rods get the most action and tinker with your presentation from there.  Simply sliding a Smile Blade on or off or swapping a silver Colorado blade for a gold Indiana blade might make the difference from a good day to a great day.  Small adjustments are going to be key.

If you are on fish but struggling to catch them focus on making your small adjustments as opposed to making big moves.  Leaving fish to find other fish is not the recipe for success on these big reservoirs.  With so much water to cover and so many potential areas to target, staying on fish and attempting to find what they prefer is often the best track to take for success.

Pitching Jigs

A springtime favorite amongst anglers is pitching jigs.  Guide Mason Propst is no different.  “Personally, my favorite way to catch walleyes in the springtime is by pitching a jig with plastics around sandbars,” says Propst.

While many anglers prefer pitching jigs and fathead minnows, Propst favors a larger presentation. “My go-to plastics are generally 4 inches long and resemble a baitfish,” he says.  The benefits of plastic are increased durability for catching multiple fish, larger profile and a wider variety of color assortments than live bait.

“I love to use pearl or white colors or anything Shad or Alewife colored depending where I am at,” Propst says.  Propst’s favorite plastics include Zoom Superflukes, Big Bite Baits Jerk Minnow, Bass Pro Shops Shadee Shad or Strike King’s Zero/ Z-Too Series.

The best thing about the pitching bite is it is available to shore anglers as well.  Often times along rocky shorelines, such as the road grade in Chamberlain, the bite becomes fast and furious as the sun goes down.  This gives shore anglers a chance at a quick limit of fish and also anglers looking to make a few casts after work or school gets out.

Other top pitching locations are along the tall bluffs just out of the main channel and also flats featuring stump fields.  These areas can produce fish in as shallow as 1-3ft deep.  Out of the main channel and into the back arms of tributaries such as Platte Creek can also produce an excellent pitching bite as well.

Vertical Jigging

Jigs don’t have to be cast to be an effective presentation.  Anglers can often find fish that are staging to spawn in deep water adjacent to spawning areas.  In these deeper situations working the same baits as mentioned above still proves to be an effective method.  Fish may prefer jigs just be drug along the bottom or actively worked, preference is going to vary by the day.

Vertical jigging locations are often not far from areas where a strong pitching bite has or will take place.  This is because fish often move deeper as they stage for spawn or to escape from adverse weather conditions.

Lead Core Trolling

Early in the season, trolling crankbaits on lead core helps anglers cover water and pinpoint active fish.  The benefit of lead core is it allows small crankbaits to reach ideal, deeper depths at a slower speed.  Early season fish are not going to be chasing aggressively, so smaller baits and slower speeds are key.  The issue with getting this combination with setups other than lead core is higher speeds and larger baits will be needed to slow the speed.

Lead core setups with small baits resembling shad or other forage are going to excel for this application.  Trolling these baits at slow speeds along flats, bridge pilings or the main river channel can produce excellent fishing along with a chance at larger fish.

Top baits are going to be #4-#7 Rapala Shad Raps, Berkley Flicker Shads, or Salmo Hornets.  Small Rapala Tail Dancers, Berkley Flicker Minnows and other minnow imitating baits such as Reef Runners are also going to be excellent options.  Regardless of what bait you choose, the most important part of your presentation is going to be finding the right depth and the right speed.  Experimentation is going to be critical to find success each and every day.

Shore Angling

The anglers that truly benefit from this buffet table is the shore anglers.  Spring presents the best opportunity for these anglers to experience the best fishing of the season and also catch their biggest fish of the year as well.

Top locations for these anglers to target are going to be the tailraces.  Oahe Dam tailrace in Fort Pierre and Big Bend Dam tailrace in Fort Thompson often draw the most anglers.  Many anglers will fish with jigs and minnows or plastics, much like how boat anglers approach pitching as mentioned above.  Other anglers may favor hard baits such as Rapala Husky Jerks, X-Raps or other similar baits.  The suspending nature of these baits allows them to be fished slowly in order to trigger cold water fish.

Much like the rocky shorelines of the tailraces, grades along highways and bridges can produce excellent fishing as well.  Fishing the bridge in the town of Chamberlain is an ideal example, but any location that has rocks and drops out to deeper water can produce action.

Anglers not looking to pitch jigs can also do well with Crappie rigs and minnows.  These baits work in the same area pitching jigs would, but also areas of sand or mud flats that fish may move up on particularly in the evening.  Other popular locations include fishing docks, beaches or other public access areas featuring these elements.  Slip bobbers with minnows can also produce some good fishing as well.

The benefits of buffet tables are they feature something for everyone.  Whether you’re looking to try a variety of foods or enjoy your favorite you’ll often find what you are looking for.  The Missouri River is no different for anglers.  The wide variety of techniques that work for a wide variety of species make this fishery the ultimate angler buffet table.  Good fishing!

by Nick Harrington