RIVERDALE - Only a few miles of the once great waterway resembles how it may have appeared prior to the construction of a series of dams. Missouri River dams were built as a precaution against flooding from the unforgiving Missouri and also as a source for hydroelectric power.
Three dams on the Upper Missouri reach form Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana, Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota and Lake Oahe in both North and South Dakota. The reservoirs that formed behind the dams erased the Missouri as it was once known, save for a stretch of the bold waterway between the Garrison Dam Tailrace and the northern-most reaches of Lake Oahe.
It is there, amidst high bluffs, sand bars reminiscent of those so ably avoided by famed riverboat pilots of the past and a succession of wooded ravines dropping down to the river, that fishermen experience scenes similar to those described in the journals of explorers Lewis and Clark.
Just prior to dark, Tim Johansen of Beulah works a jig and minnow combination to entice a Missouri River walleye in the Garrison Dam Tailrace.
Large boulders lie in the riverbed, some visible but others concealed under only a few inches of water - lurking in wait for an errant boater. Woody snags are there too, consisting of old cottonwoods hardened by years of submersion in the sand and mud beneath the Missouri. While on the "Mighty Mo" it takes very little imagination to get a glimpse of how the heart of America may have appeared 100 or more years ago.
"You see deer, turkeys, eagles, vultures," said Tim Johansen, Beulah, shortly after returning to the dock at the Tailrace. "The river is a great opportunity to get out and see some sights."
Today the Missouri in North Dakota is not free-flowing. It is regulated by releases through the power-generating turbines of Garrison Dam. Recent daily flows through the dam have been averaging about 26,000 cubic feet per second. During the record high water of 2011 flows approached 150,000 cfs. In dry years prior to 2011 flows of less than 20,000 cfs were common. The river would rise and drop accordingly.
Fishermen on the Missouri must adjust to the varying flows of the river. Changes of two to three feet are always possible. On the river, even a few inches of water changes its appearance and can affect navigation. Changes in elevation are also what makes the river so challenging to anglers. Fish make adjustments too. The game for the fisherman then, is trying to determine how the fish react in a variety of water conditions. Solve the problem, say veteran anglers, and you'll find the fish.
"Most of the people that fish down here are pretty good about sharing things, if you ask nicely," noted Johansen. "Most will tell you what's going on. River fishermen are a different breed. They fish to about July and then lay off for a while, until about October."
There are many species of fish in the Missouri, but the fish most seek are walleyes. River walleyes differ from lake walleyes. They react to current, clarity of water and to subtle changes in contours on the riverbottom. There are times when it seems the river holds no fish at all, and there are times when it seems to be teeming with fish.
Unlocking the fishing secrets of the Missouri takes time and practice, a process that can be fast-forwarded by helpful tips from known "river rats." However, even among experienced Missouri River fishermen, the tactics will vary. Popular fishing presentations on the Missouri include a jig and a minnow, artificial bait or crankbaits. Perhaps more than in any fishing waters in North Dakota though, minor adjustments can produce major results.
There are times when river walleyes are aggressively on the prowl, eager to ambush any feed they encounter and boost the confidence of the angler above. But they can frustrate too. On those occasions a difference of one-eighth of an ounce in the weight of a jig can be important. So too can a few feet of boat position or choice of fishing line. There are times on the river when the importance of small details cannot be over-emphasized.
"The river is a lot of fun," said Johansen. "There's a lot of opportunity and quite a variety of fish. The walleye fishing has been fantastic."
Johansen is a regular at the river and knows where and how to fish under a variety of conditions. The former guide holds the state record for Brown trout with a 31-pound, 11-ounce catch pulled from the Tailrace in 2005. He'll fish the river at anytime, even after dark.
As the sun begins to disappear behind the bluffs lining portions of the Missouri, sunlight on the river turns to shadow. The walleyes often react. A favorite spot on which only a fish or two were taken in the previous few hours will change suddenly. The walleyes that couldn't be found earlier are now on the move. It is the way life is in the river.
While fishing after dark often presents new opportunities for fishermen, it also comes with a new set of challenges. The river in daylight that can be perilous for a boater, becomes even more so after dark. Over-reliance on GPS can lead to nasty encounters with natural obstacles. Logs moved by the current are all but impossible to see. It is an uncomfortable thought for a boat operator.
In the boat additional light is needed. The simple act of tying fishing line becomes more difficult. Small headlamps or other artificial illumination is necessary. Still, fishing in the dark is infinitely challenging. An angler cannot see precisely where his cast will land. It may be right on top of a snag that would be easily visible during the day. Rod tips disappear into the dark of night. Watching line is impossible.
A sensitive fishing rod is a big plus after dark, making it possible for an angler to better react to the feel of a fish. When a fish is hooked, the angler's natural instinct is to watch his line and bend of the fishing rod and look for the fish as it is being reeled to the boat. Visual reassurance is not possible in the dark. How far away a hooked fish is remains guesswork until it reaches boatside. A headlamp may illuminate the eyes of a walleye, or it can be a splash at the surface that reveals the fish is ready to be netted.
Fishing in the dark is difficult and requires proper preparation. On the Missouri it also requires a very good knowledge of the river. Night fishing is not for every fisherman, but there are times when excellent success is possible.