The Bakken Sportsman Guide to Finding Fish in Northwestern North Dakota
Everyone has a favorite fish to catch. Here is a list of where you are most likely to find your favorite fish:
Lake Sakakawea/Lake Oahe – Sakakawea and Oahe’s pike populations expanded in the 1990s as a result of excellent spawning success, and then declined throughout a drought period in the mid-2000s. This classic boom/bust cycle has again come full circle as the number of young pike produced in 2009 was the highest in more than 30 years. Pike abundance today is higher than ever in both reservoirs.
The population, however, is still maturing and anglers looking for trophy pike will need to be patient for a few more years. In 2014, anglers will find large numbers of pike in the 6- to 8-pound range, with a few large fish in the mix. Lake Oahe currently has larger overall pike than those in Lake Sakakawea, but either reservoir can produce a trophy pike at any time.
Lake Sakakawea – Lake Sakakawea’s walleye fishery was outstanding in 2012 and continued into 2013 with exceptional fishing throughout the year. Improved forage conditions and a more balanced predator/prey ratio have allowed Sakakawea walleye to improve dramatically in body condition and growth rates. However, forage abundance and fish condition has declined somewhat in the wake of the 2011 flood. This reduction in forage likely played a big role in the exceptional bite experienced in 2013.
During the mid-2000s, poor forage led to slow growth and the population was dominated by small fish. Fortunately, conditions improved greatly and those small fish are now growing to sizes desired by anglers.
Today, the population contains a healthy percentage of fish exceeding 20 inches. Additionally, the 2010 year-class was exceptional and has grown well and is beginning to dominate the fishery. In 2014, anglers will begin catching this abundant group of fish with many in the 16-inch range.
Missouri River/Lake Oahe – The fishery downstream of Garrison Dam to the South Dakota border was exceptional prior to and immediately following the flood of 2011. However, anglers will continue to find a different fishery in 2014 than they did just a few years ago.
Fishing may be seasonally good in the coming year due to depressed forage conditions. However, anglers should expect to encounter far fewer large walleye and the catch will likely be dominated by small fish. In addition, the overall abundance of walleye continues to decline as the predator/prey imbalance begins to correct itself.
Upper Lake Sakakawea, Missouri River (above the reservoir) and Yellowstone River – A strong catfish population, with some fish exceeding 10 pounds. This is where anglers will find the best chance to catch a big cat in the Missouri River System. Anglers who target the area from Williston to the Missouri River and Yellowstone River confluence are generally quite successful during the open water season, and fair numbers of catfish are caught through the ice.
Lake Sakakawea – Good population of cats throughout the reservoir, but the best numbers and fishing success are in the upper end. Catfish abundance in Lake Sakakawea generally increased during the last drought and likewise began to increase again in 2012 due to declining lake elevations. The 2013 adult fish survey documented the highest catch rate of catfish ever for Lake Sakakawea.
Garrison Dam Tailrace – Provides some good fishing for smaller catfish, especially in summer. Cats from this area are great table fare thanks to relatively cold water throughout summer.
Missouri River, south of Garrison Dam – Catfish are abundant in this reach, and good fishing often occurs around the mouths of tributaries and well upstream during good flow conditions.
Missouri River System – The Missouri River salmon fishery was greatly affected by high water in 2011, but recovered dramatically in 2012, with exceptional salmon fishing on Lake Sakakawea throughout the year, with an abundance of quality fish harvested by anglers. Salmon fishing slowed somewhat in 2013 as a result of the 2011 flood. The majority of salmon available in the 2013 run were from those smolts stocked during the 2011 flood, but high entrainment, or passage of those fish through Garrison Dam, likely resulted in the reduced salmon run the past year.
While habitat conditions and forage abundance remain good, the quality of the Lake Sakakawea salmon fishery in 2014 is unknown. The effects of entrainment from the 2011 flood should begin to greatly diminish beginning in 2014.
Missouri River System – Lake Oahe typically has a much better white bass fishery than Lake Sakakawea. White bass, however, experienced a severe die-off in Oahe a few years ago and have not fully recovered. Natural reproduction was exceptional in 2009, but a large die-off of young bass was also reported. Overall, white bass abundance remains well below past levels.
Lake Sakakawea – Similar to northern pike, smallmouth bass abundance declined due to low water and poor spawning habitat. However, reproduction was exceptional beginning in 2008, and anglers have been encountering good numbers of fish in the last couple of years.
In 2012, anglers caught a high number of Whopper-sized smallmouth bass from Sakakawea. Catches of large smallmouth bass declined in 2013, but the abundance and size of smallmouth should remain good in 2014.
Garrison Dam Tailrace – The Tailrace continues to produce trophy brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. Rainbow trout have done especially well, with good numbers of 5- to 10-pound fish caught by anglers.
The Tailrace brown trout fishery has slowed in recent years, but still contains world-class-sized fish. A 20-pound brown is always a possibility.
Cutthroat trout have not done quite so well in recent years. Following their initial boom in the early 2000s, the population has declined in numbers and quality despite continued stocking.
Devils Lake Basin
Randy Hiltner, district fisheries supervisor, and Todd Caspers, fisheries biologist, both Devils Lake
Devils Lake – Walleye population continues to thrive. Reproduction in recent years has been good and there are many fish of less than 15 inches. The number of 15- to 20-inch walleye is starting to increase as well because the record 2009 year-class is beginning grow into this size group. The number of walleye over 20 inches is lower than that of smaller fish, but these larger fish are right around their long-term average. The number of larger walleye would likely be better, but weak hatches from 2003-05 likely contributed to this lower abundance.
Stump Lake – Walleye are doing well. There is a variety of sizes, with most of the fish between 12-18 inches, and many around 14 inches. Larger fish are available as well.
Lake Irvine – Walleye are doing well. Fish are abundant, with many sizes available, including good numbers over 20 inches.
Devils Lake – A naturally reproducing northern pike population will continue to provide great angler opportunities in 2014. Pike are abundant and found throughout the lake, particularly in shallower areas.
Most pike are between 20-28 inches, but fish up to about 42 inches are present in the lake. Northern pike are an underutilized fish in Devils Lake, so anglers should not be shy about keeping their limit.
Stump Lake – Northern pike are abundant. Most of the pike are medium-sized, but there are some larger fish available.
Lake Irvine – Northern pike are abundant. Most fish are medium-sized, but there are some larger pike present. Pike in Irvine are underutilized, so anglers should not be shy about keeping their limit.
Devils Lake – The number of yellow perch in Devils Lake is increasing. The strong hatches of 2006 and 2007 are now the jumbo-sized perch that anglers love, and their numbers are good. Fish from the abundant 2011 year-class are about 9 inches.
Assuming that there are good numbers of the jumbos left after winter, and the smaller fish keep growing well, 2014 should produce some good perch fishing.
There was also a record-setting perch hatch in 2013, so if these fish can escape predators, there may be some very good perch fishing coming in four years or so when these fish reach an attractive size.
Stump Lake – Perch numbers are increasing. Strong hatches in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011 have produced a good perch population.
There should be good perch fishing opportunities in 2014, as there are good numbers of 8- to 12-inch fish, with some larger ones mixed in. Like Devils Lake, there was also a record-setting hatch in 2013, so if these fish can escape predators, there may be some very good perch fishing to look forward to down the road.
Lake Irvine – Perch numbers are low, but the few fish in the lake tend to be larger.
Devils Lake – White bass numbers have increased a bit from a recent low, but they are still a bit lower than average and much lower than their last boom in 2007-08. Bass are still relatively common and good-sized, as most are between 12-17 inches, but there are still some larger fish available. White bass numbers should remain somewhat low in the near future as they have not had a strong hatch in several years.
Stump Lake – White bass numbers are low.
Lake Irvine – White bass numbers are low, but fish are good-sized.