Fishing Sakakawea is legendary

North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea has become one of the United States’ top destinations when it comes to quality fisheries. Right in the heart of Sakakawea Country, the big lake is quickly gaining the reputation of being one of the top fisheries anywhere.

Formed in the 1950s when the Garrison Dam flooded the bottomland along the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea has gained national recognition as one of the top destinations for anglers – both professional and recreational.

While the Upper Missouri River Basin is in the grips of an extended drought, there is still plenty of water and access on Lake Sakakawea. And fishing has been better than ever. Anglers this past summer recorded near-record numbers of walleye caught on the big lake, so access has not been a problem.

Cooperative efforts between the Corps of Engineers, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and local park boards have helped to ensure that boaters have usable boat ramps all around the lake.

And while the lake level is lower, that translates to more exposed points and structures for anglers to key on. Instead of being tucked away in weedy back bays, walleyes and other game fish now can be found more on the main body of the lake.

Lake Sakakawea, named for the famed American Indian girl who guided Lewis and Clark Expedition through the region, has drawn national attention in the past few years. In 2001, the Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) made its first ever stop on the big water as part of its western pro-am tour. The subsequent publicity from magazine and television coverage of the event has sparked the interest of anglers across the country; and for good reason. This past fall, the PWT returned to the Missouri River for a major fall event, one which drew plenty of interest from local fans as well as from a national audience.

The lake also hosts a number of prestigious walleye tournaments that draw anglers from across the Midwest and beyond; The North Dakota Governor’s Cup and Dakota Walleye Classic, just to name two.

Lake Sakakawea, with more than 1,600 miles of shoreline and endless secluded bays, still retains much of the raw and untamed beauty that Lewis and Clark chronicled in their journals as they explored the area in the early 1800s. In addition to its diversity when it comes to games species sought after by anglers, the area surrounding the lake also captivates sightseers with a combination of wide-open and uncluttered horizons mixed in with rugged and rocky shorelines. 

As part of the Missouri River System that winds through America’s heartland, the headwaters begin in the northwest part of the state near the North Dakota/Montana border. It is there that Lake Sakakawea begins at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. While walleye fishing commands the most attention from anglers on Sakakawea, it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to species found in her waters.

The confluence area itself is home to two of the most unique fish species anywhere – the Pallid Sturgeon and the Paddlefish. Paddlefish (Polyodon Spathula) historically ranged throughout the Mississippi River drainage into the Missouri River as far north as Montana. Paddlefish became commercially important around the turn of the century, due in part to the decline of Lake Sturgeon populations, and became an important recreational species after fish began concentrating below dams. Today, both Paddlefish and Pallid Sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus Albus) still roam the waters as they have done for millions of years. 

And while Sakakawea offers other recreational opportunities like sailing, camping, and boating, fishing is king, with species for all seasons. For those into ice fishing, the secluded back bays offer the chance to pull monster Northern Pike in excess of 20 lbs through the ice. Walleyes, Salmon, and Sauger are also possibilities for ice fishing.

The Pike bite continues after ice-out when they cruise the shallows in search of baitfish. And a strong and healthy population of rainbow smelt keeps the fish in Sakakawea fat and sassy. Early-season boat anglers usually turn their attention to deep-running Saugers, a smaller version of its cousin the walleye.

As the air and water temperatures rise, walleyes come off their pre-spawn feeding patterns and get more aggressive. Anglers concentrate on rocky points and inside cuts of bays using jigs and minnows early on, then spinners and night crawlers as the summer progresses. 

This is one of the most challenging times for anglers as walleyes move from shallows to deeper waters as they pursue schools of smelt or hang along weed beds. There is a lot of water and a lot of shoreline to cover on Sakakawea so finding walleyes is only half of the challenge.

Smallmouth bass are another species that are increasingly sought after by both boat and shore anglers. Tactics range from live bait rigs to artificial lures for these feisty fish.

Chinook salmon is also another popular species on Sakakawea. As late fall and the salmon spawn approaches, shore fishing with crank baits, spoons, egg sacks or night crawlers are also effective. Salmon come in to the shallow bays to spawn this time of the year and one of the main attractions for those who fish for salmon is tying into this fighter on light gear. 

North Dakota is known for its propensity for “Indian Summers” when the chill of the fall air gives way to the milder temperatures. Die-hard anglers will chase walleyes in the 10-20 foot of water range, using crank baits. The potential for whopper walleyes in excess of 10 lbs increases as the walleyes go on a feeding frenzy as winter approaches.

And as another prairie season cycles along, it brings you back to winter. In addition to the big water of Lake Sakakawea, Sakakawea Country offers smaller bodies of water like Lake Audubon, Lake Darling and others for that avid angler who just can’t get enough when it come to fishing.


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