One of North America’s largest man-made reservoirs, Lake Sakakawea, can be found in the heart of North Dakota. This lake has countless miles of shoreline, it’s an adventurer’s paradise. You can fish the entire lake throughout the year, and never fish the same spot twice. Lake Sakakawea is a deep lake, with average depths of well over 100 feet in the basin. This lake has a lot of character. The shoreline is littered with red bluffs, rolling hills, and other hints of the badlands. It’s very uninhabited and vast, so there’s plenty of room to find your own spot.
The great thing about this lake is the timing in which it heats up. Normally, ice out can be as late as May. And because it’s so deep, it takes some time to warm up. When June and July bring mid-summer patterns on most lakes; Lake Sakakawea is just heating up. And best of all, the lake is very healthy right now. There is an abundance of food and no shortage of walleyes over 20 inches in length.
Lake Sakakawea has literally every type of bottom contour imaginable. It has endless points, flats, humps, islands, etc., as well as rocks, sand, and gravel, mud and everything in-between. The sheer size of the lake can make it intimidating when you see it at first.
This can make it impossible, at times, to determine where to start. But knowing the lake’s tendencies can help get you pointed in the right direction.
Springtime is the slow time as previously mentioned, it can take weeks after ice out for the lake to become productive. You really have two options early on. Head up the river on the north end of the lake in search of warmer water. Be patient in the backs of bays for some big bites.
We normally pitch jigs and minnows this time of year. The big females are laying up along the shore, so you want to stay away from the shoreline and cast in. They’re usually laying up in a few feet of water, warming up. You won’t catch big numbers this way, but you have a great chance at a giant or even personal best. There are a lot of serious walleyes in Sakakawea.
Summertime is the fun time normally, the far north and east end of the lake heats up first. When the month of June rolls around, you can find fish shallow in these areas, and in big numbers. They start to group up back in the bays and along shallow flats, making them easy to find. For whatever reason, I have my best luck (by far) in the morning with these tactics. Not saying you can’t catch fish in the evening, it’s just my experience.
As summer kicks into gear, the fish start to move out of the bays and near the mouths and into the main lake. This is the best time of year to fish Lake Sakakawea, in my opinion. When you find the walleyes, you usually find them in big schools. 75 to even 100 fish days are possible in late June and throughout July. The key to fishing Lake Sakakawea this time of year is covering a lot of ground. Don’t waste too much time on a spot if you’re not marking fish. Keep moving until you find them. And the fish bite all day long, not just early and late. And don’t forget to play the wind. More often than not the action is on the windblown side.
I have a seasonal camping spot near Beulah, on the lake’s south end. I like this area because you’re striking distance to any stretch of the lake. But in the summertime, I fish this area and over towards the Indian Hills Resort region often. The fish are usually abundant throughout this stretch of the lake in July and August.
The presentations that work for summertime walleyes on Lake Sakakawea are endless. But here are the strategies I key in on.
Slow Death Rigging
A classic bottom bouncer, clear leader, and a slow death hook and crawler are very popular here. The water is normally clear, and when you find dirty water you often find fish as well. Adding a blade in front of the hook will help give it the necessary flash for triggering fish in these conditions.
I do a lot of trolling for walleyes in the summertime, and it works well on Sakakawea. The key is using your electronics and finding the depths where schools of baitfish and fish are located. Then you can use a variety of trolling tactics and crankbaits to pull them up. I tend to favor long, minnow-style crankbaits for this reservoir. Their forage base is big smelt, and as they say, match the hatch.
The popularity of using jigging raps has exploded in recent years on the lake.
You can’t go a day without seeing someone doing it, if not everyone. When you find fish, simply sit on them. More often than not, they will hit a rap. We tend to favor the larger sizes, with natural colors on this lake.
While you can also fish them with spinning rigs and jigs, I’ve found that these 3 are more often than not my go-to methods all summer long.
Fall is Pig Season. Fall fishing on Lake Sakakawea has been so overlooked it’s crazy. I spent a lot of time on the north end last fall, and most days you had key spots all to yourself. Everybody is either hunting or has already put their boat away. This is the time of year you owe it to yourself to make a trip. The big fish just seem to show up everywhere, and pictures on social media prove it.
The only problem, if there is one, is the fish can be found anywhere at this time of year. I’ve seen them in 8 feet of water, and we’ve had to pull them out of 40+. And this can change day by day, taking just a bit longer at times to get on the fish. But when it all comes together, you have a strong chance at a 30” + walleye.
More than just walleyes without a doubt—walleyes are the king species of the lake. I would guess that on any given day, 95% or more are targeting them. But did you know, it’s also a fantastic pike and smallmouth fishery? We catch numerous pike over 40” each year, usually while fishing for walleyes. And I’ve had days where we’ve had smallmouth on almost every cast for hours. And not just any smallmouth, but some pushing 20” as well. If you’re setting your sights on walleye, and stumble into a large pod of smallies, I highly recommend you stop and fish them. We cast jigs with plastics as well as small crankbaits to target them. Usually, you’ll find them around rock piles, and there are many on this lake.
Without a doubt, now is the time to plan a trip to Lake Sakakawea. As stated, the fishery is so healthy right now. There isn’t a shortage of food, numbers, or size of fish; and I don’t see this changing any time soon. There are a lot of places to stay on this lake, and the accommodations are all over the board. There are also some guide services available if you need some help getting pointed in the right direction.
Chris Hustad is an avid angler and waterfowler residing in Bismarck, North Dakota. When he’s not promoting Review Your Gear, he can be found in the boat or in the field with his 3 children. For more information regarding Lake Sakakawea, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tight Lines!