RIVERDALE From experienced "river rats" to the occasional angler looking for a fishing fix, the Missouri River is an inviting destination. From the waters of the Tailrace below Garrison Dam to the head of Lake Oahe south of Bismarck, fishermen eagerly take advantage of the state's premier multi-species fishery.
Walleyes remain the No. 1 fish in the Missouri River for anglers, but they'll usually find themselves hooking into sauger, northern pike or smallmouth bass too. The Missouri also has chinook salmon and rainbow and brown trout that sometimes reach 20 pounds or more. Huge cutthroat trout are there too.
Other species that often surprise anglers includes perch, burbot, sturgeon, white bass, whitefish, paddlefish, catfish, cisco, drum, gar and goldeyes. If it swims in North Dakota, it'll likely turn up in the Missouri. Fish grow big in the Missouri too, the Tailrace alone accounts for seven state records. In 2011 Alecia Berg of Minot pulled a 15 pounds, 4 ounce walleye from the Tailrace, missing the listed state record by a mere 8 ounces.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Be it from the bank or from a boat, anglers enjoy taking advantage of open water on the Missouri River. This photo was taken near the Tailrace boat ramp.
Toss in open water during the cold months of winter and some of the most beautiful scenery in the state, and it is no wonder that the "Mighty Mo" is an angling magnet. Even when the wind brings a little more chill than a coveralls clad fisherman can stand, there are ample places to find some protection from the elements. A bend in the river or switching from fishing near one shore to the other is sometimes all that is necessary to change conditions from "too cold" to very tolerable.
Ducks, geese and mergansers are common visitors to the Missouri if open water can be found. The Tailrace is where releases from Garrison Dam begin, keeping water open even on the coldest of days and resulting in concentrations of waterfowl. In recent weeks the Missouri opened up all the way to Bismarck. Fishermen in that region gladly pulled their boats out of winter storage so that they could get in a few very welcome hours on the water.
Successful fishing on the Missouri generally means a change in presentations versus those customarily applied elsewhere in the state. The Missouri is almost always clear water, giving fish and fishermen greater visibility than other bodies of water in the state. Tactics that work well in murky or stained water may be miserable failures on the Missouri.
Some of the most successful fishermen on the Missouri use as light fishing line as possible. A common choice is 4 to 6 pound fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon is much less visible than braid or regular monofilament. It also sinks better, allowing the more effective use of light jigs in presenting fish with the most natural appearing lure possible.
Fishermen in the Tailrace, and elsewhere on the Missouri, fish jigs almost exclusively. Sometimes they'll try other tactics, such as pulling Rapalas on a three-way rig, but those who master the technique of jigging in strong current do very well. Many Missouri River anglers take only a box of jigs on the water with them, considering it the only way to tempt Missouri River fish.
Jigs can be fished with swirl tails alone, but most anglers prefer either live minnows or Gulp! Usually the fish will let the fishermen know what is working best. Fishermen who prefer using small snaps to quickly facilitate the changing of jigs will likely discover that Missouri River fish can be quite finicky. The angler who ties his line directly to the jig greatly increases his or her odds of catching fish.
How fish pick up a jig and minnow presentation can vary with each trip to the Missouri. Sometimes walleyes on the Missouri will inhale a jig and minnow so gently that the fisherman is virtually unaware it is time to set the hook. Good equipment is a must at those times if an angler wishes to have any success. At other times the fish will slam into a presentation with an unmistakable vigor. To be consistently successful, a river fishermen must be aware of both extremes and prepared to react accordingly.
Color selection for jigs varies greatly, but veteran "river rats" usually have a few select colors that they have come to rely upon. The weight and style of jig sometimes make a difference too. A good rule on the river is "the lighter the jig the better." Color choice ranges from the plain to basic gold, white or multi-colored.
Jig selection includes swim jigs, gumball jigs, lipstick jigs, propeller jigs, spinner jigs, football jigs - all in either short or long shank depending on the angler's preference. The use of stinger hooks is another option to be considered. However, none of the above matters much if the angler can't locate the fish. Where the fish are at any given time is the Missouri River angler's biggest challenge.
Reading a river goes a long ways toward determining where to fish. The current is easy to see, less so is the small ripples and eddys that may identify submerged trees, rocks and sandbars, or the smooth water than may indicate greater depth. Any change in the appearance of the surface of the water means something is different below, something that may hold fish.
The river bottom varies too, from hard packed sand to gravel to mud to weedy areas. In short, there is no shortage of areas for a fishermen to learn - any of which could hold fish at any given time. The more options a fisherman is aware of, the better his chances of locating fish. Often as little as a few boat lengths is the difference between excellent fishing or tough fishing.
The presence of a boat often causes fish to move, particularly in the clear and relatively shallow water of the Missouri. Walleyes may be stacked up in a certain spot, only to spook away when a boater approaches from the wrong direction or misses his intended mark. If the fish can't be located, it can lead to some frustration on the water. Fortunately, the Missouri holds enough fish that an angler, with a little work, can usually find some somewhere.
Never hard to find is the scenery that is unique to the Missouri. It is lined with high banks and bluffs, often wildlife is visible along the shoreline or in the cuts leading towards the water. The scenery itself can be spectacular, often accented by the graceful swoops of bald eagles that regularly fish the same water as anglers.
There is a sense of history contained in the Missouri as well. It was the highway used by Plains Indians and explorers Lewis and Clark. It was the lifegiving arm to countless wildlife on the plains, a role it still fulfills to some extent today. Paddlefish and pallid sturgeon, dating back to the time when dinosaurs roamed, still rely on the Missouri for survival.
Numerous historic riverboats, piloted by such famous captains as the legendary Grant Marsh, used to carry necessary goods up and down which was once a free-flowing waterway. Some of the obstacles those early paddlewheelers encountered - ever changing sandbars, protruding rocks and massive cottonwood trees - remain in the river today. All are reminders to today's fishermen of the historical significance of one of the nation's greatest waterways and striking features of one of North Dakota's favorite fisheries.