Editor's note: The original intent of author Kim Fundingsland in the following column was to detail his fishing experience during a single trip to Lake Sakakawea. However, the weather proved to be more difficult than anticipated, limiting fishing time and requiring a second trip. What follows is a firsthand account of five hours of fishing during two separate days on the water.
GARRISON - I pulled the boat out of the driveway a few minutes after 6 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 5. By 6:32 a.m. I was setting the cruise control and on my way to Lake Sakakawea. My purpose was pursuit of northern pike and, if cooperative, smallmouth bass.
I knew the walleye guys had been doing very well, but also knew the cold front that rolled in during the previous day and night usually causes the walleye bite to shut down. More than once, I've seen walleyes on the sonar scattered during the morning, but then clustered tightly on the bottom later the same day. Walleyes often forecast a cold front.
Smallmouth bass fishermen enjoy pursuing their chosen quarry on Lake Sakakawea. Large smallmouth have been common on Lake Sakakawea this summer, many of them above the catch-and-release club qualifying standard of 16 inches.
The temperature on my rear view mirror read 54 degrees. The overnight forecast for Garrison was 45 degrees, easily the coldest temperatures in many weeks. How would the fish react? The most logical answer is that they'd shut down. It was much too early for the fall bite to begin. I reasoned that those days are still ahead.
As soon as I made the Garrison turn off U.S. Highway 83 to the west, several bicycles came into view. It was the start of the annual CANDISC bicycle run. I counted six recumbent bikes, one complete with a high windshield; three tandem bikes and numerous other assorted road bikes. I was surprised to see several people riding the basic bicycles of the past. No gears or handlebar brakes. Maybe they were just there for the start. Maybe not. I knew they all had quite a week in front of them.
I backed the boat down the ramp at DeTrobriand Marina at Fort Stevenson State Park at 8 a.m. After sitting in the marina for a few minutes to arrange the boat, get the rod holders in place and four rods rigged I was ready to go.
My lure choices were buzzbait, spinnerbait and swimbait on what I consider my northern pike rods. Smallmouth often chase those lures too, making them good choices for search baits. On my fourth fishing rod, a much lighter rod, I had a wacky-rigged worm ready for smallmouth action if necessary.
As I eased my boat out of DeTrobriand Marina and turned to the right, I saw a large smallmouth leap out of the water. What a lake! One boat at the dock was heading out for walleyes and another for salmon. I was searching for northern pike and smallmouth.
I stopped the boat in the vicinity where the smallmouth had leaped high. It was 8:09 a.m. The buzzbait was my choice. I'd hooked some good smallies there previously on buzzbaits and figured a surface lure would grab some attention. The water was a little choppy, but not enough to discount the appeal of a buzzbait. I made three long casts, one in front of the boat and one to each side. Nothing. Fine. Time to move.
The run out of DeTrobriand Bay to the lake proper was easy, almost at full throttle. No sense to opening it up all the way and watching the gasoline gauge dip. I can stretch a tank of gas pretty well by saving a few RPMs.
When I got to the lake the waves were rough enough to cause me to ease back on the throttle. Why bounce the heck out of the boat and stress equipment? I was only going about a half-mile anyway. It was darn cool on the water too. I put on my rain gear for the first time since early spring. It cuts the wind and keeps the spray away.
My first stop on the lake side of DeTrobriand Island was a spot where I'd caught several very good northern pike on previous trips. That included three in excess of the catch-and-release length of 32 inches just two days earlier. I made five casts with a spinnerbait outfitted with a big willow leaf blade and a smaller Colorado blade. Nothing.
I moved the boat about 40 yards farther to the east and much closer to a row of submerged trees. My sea legs weren't very good and the boat was rocking in the waves. I decided to keep a life vest on over my rain gear while standing up and casting. I made six casts with a spinnerbait and two more with a black buzzbait with no fish, not even a follow.
The water temperature was 69.3 degrees, down from the mid- to upper-70s the previous Friday. It seemed to me that the pike were reacting to the cold front too, but it was too early to form a solid opinion after only 13 casts. Still, I was already beginning to have my doubts.
I moved the boat out to 14 feet of water. With the wind and waves the drift toward shore would be fairly swift. No way was I going to put out a drift sock with submerged trees in the area. The drift would allow for several casts as long as I stayed organized.
Five casts with a buzzbait did nothing. I started the motor and moved in closer to shore. There I made 10 more casts, in all directions, with the buzzbait. Nothing. A guy fishing walleyes in an Alumacraft was about 50 yards farther out. It appeared he was snagged on something because he was turning his boat in the direction of the bend in his fishing rod. I was rapidly washing into shore so had to turn away and get my own boat moving.
I moved farther east, not very far though. Still searching for fish. This stop was in 12 feet of water over submerged trees. Three casts with the buzzbait proved fruitless. I moved 10 yards and made another three casts. Still nothing, but it was getting a little warmer. It was 8:36 a.m.
Continuing along the shoreline to the east, I made seven more tosses - two with a buzzbait and five with a spinnerbait, without success. Then I grabbed the rod with a five-inch firetiger swimbait and a 1/2 ounce nose weight. I made seven casts in 5 1/2 feet of water. Nothing. Time to move. This time, maybe a mile down the shoreline to the east.
As I pushed the motor to about half speed, I could see three boats on the water in the direction I was headed. As I got closer I could see they appeared to be fishing walleyes outside a submerged island covered with trees, many of which were protruding from the water. I could not resist stopping and checking it out. I stopped well inside the boats, nearly over the island and within a short cast of the trees.
On my fifth cast with a spinnerbait I felt a hit. I suspected smallmouth but couldn't be sure. I grabbed the swimbait rod and flipped that lure about 15 feet from the boat where that hit occurred. Hit! Now gone. Hit again! I could see a small smallmouth holding onto the tail of that swimbait. A quick jerk pulled the swimbait out of his mouth, a lesson I hope he forgets when he gets bigger. Time to move again.
I reminded myself that I was fishing on the back end of a nasty cold front and that any fish would be a bonus. With that thought in my head, I eased the boat next to some submerged trees near the lakeside entrance to Steinke Bay. That spot had produced some very nice pike on earlier trips.
I pitched a half-ounce spinnerbait into 4 feet of water. Four casts and no fish. I moved the boat farther outside the trees and made 10 casts with a swimbait in 10 1/2 feet of water. Nothing. The water temperature was 69.6, certainly colder that what it had been, but give me a break! It's not all that bad. I guess the fish thought so.
There were several boats inside Steinke Bay, out of the wind and fishing walleyes. I drew that conclusion because the boats were almost stationary. That meant they must be live-baiting as slow as possible due to the cold front conditions. It was 9:20 a.m. The moon was still visible. Moonset wasn't due until 10:43 a.m. If the pike were going to turn on, I reasoned, that would be the time.
It was a good time to take a break and consider what to do next. A sandwich in the cooler had been talking to me anyway. I let the boat drift into Steinke Bay while finishing off a bottle of water. I made 10 casts to the shoreline with a swimbait and came up empty. Then I saw a fish jump about 40 yards away, right near where a branch was coming out of the water.
What kind of fish? I couldn't tell, but snapped on a five-inch Zara Spook to attempt to find out. Six casts of "walking the dog" and nothing. Surprisingly, the lake was suddenly calm. A boat trolled past and I asked if they'd caught any fish. The reply was "just a couple of little ones."
I moved out onto the lake and approached another boat which I recognized as a regular on the lake. He said he had one smallmouth and that the walleyes weren't being very cooperative. While visiting with him I saw a pike jump out of the water about 75 yards farther out on the lake. Off I went!
Where I stopped the sonar read 52 feet. I could also see a couple of balls of baitfish on the screen. A few minnows were jumping out of the water too. That big pike had them all stirred up. On my fourth cast with a swimbait that pike came out of the water again. However, it was about 10 yards from where I had tossed my lure. It was encouraging, but after 10 casts I still had no fish!
As I turned around in the boat I could see whitecaps rolling across the lake and could feel the wind getting stronger. Within
minutes the calm water turned to big rollers. The wind was out of the southwest.
It wasn't supposed to amount to much. So much for that. Yuk!
I decided to go back to my first spot and fish that during moonset. Surely that move would produce some nice fish. When I got there conditions had worsened to the point that standing up in the boat was risky business. The waves were pushing the boat towards shore much too quickly to allow any decent fishing anyway. Stay or go?
My decision was to go, not back to the ramp but into the wind and across the lake where conditions would be much better. I changed my mind after maybe a half-mile. It was very rough! The heck with it!
I turned the boat back towards DeTrobriand Bay. There were no other boats visible on the lake. I was the last to get the message, I guess. When I got to DeTrobriand there were several other boats tucked into the bay, trying to get out of the wind and waves and salvage some fishing time. It was reasonably calm.
I made 10 casts on the edge of submerged trees with a Zara Spook. No results. Then a very large boat, cabin cruiser-type, rolled out of the bay at very high speed and threw a monster wake for me and the other fishing boats to deal with. Why? We had come into the bay to get away from the rocking and rolling. Not very courteous, even on a big lake.
After sitting down and waiting for those manmade rollers to pass, I made 10 more casts with a swimbait. No fish. No follows. Done. It was only 10:55 a.m.
That morning, short as it was, was my first fishing trip of the year to Lake Sakakawea without any success. One hundred nineteen casts, one fish on, none caught in two hours and 46 minutes. My time on the water was brief but I blamed the cold front for poor fishing. Every fisherman needs a reason for such things. Later I learned that the walleye bite came on as the weather warmed in the afternoon.
It is Monday, Aug. 6, and here I am again - DeTrobriand Bay. Just like the day previous, I was greeted by a smallmouth jumping about 100 yards outside the entrance to the marina. I fell for the fishy ruse and stopped the boat. Five casts later, with a surface buzz, I had no results. It was time to make a decision. Should I stay here and try to figure out what these smallmouth want or move on now? I decided to move rather than spend time being outmaneuvered by smallmouth. It was 8:16 a.m.
I made a left coming out of DeTrobriand Bay, aiming the bow of the boat towards a spot that I knew - with a reasonable degree of certainty - should be holding northern pike. It was an edge of submerged trees starting in about 14 feet of water and continuing all the way to the shoreline. There was very little wind, almost calm.
I chose one of my favorite search lures, a black buzzbait, for the first cast. Fish! Wow! I had been looking down at the bail on my spinning rod when I heard a splash. When I looked up a pike rose from the water and took the buzzbait down with him. He put up a very respectable but losing battle.
That fish measured 31 inches. He was fat, but I did not measure the girth or put him on a scale. Good fish but not great, and there would be others. Also, it was warm enough that a quick release was a pretty good idea.
When I put that pike back in the water it rolled onto its side. I grabbed him by the tail and turned him upright in the water. About 45 seconds later that fish whipped his tail hard and splashed water all over me. Good for him! It was a successful release.
I made two more casts at that location without any visible reaction from the fish. Of course, I had stirred the area up a bit with that first pike and, while I was playing him and unhooking him and releasing him, the boat had drifted directly over where I wanted to fish. Sometimes, not always, a boat will bump fish. Time to move.
A note on the conditions, which were much better than the previous day. Knowing that the cold front had passed, I reasoned that it was a pretty good day to find some big fish. I set that as a goal. On a rod I use for muskie fishing I tied on a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader and snapped on a big Top Raider, a jointed lure with a prop tail that sputters loudly on the surface.
My next location was only a long cast from where I'd caught my first fish of the day. I positioned the boat farther away from a treeline than I would have liked, but I could still reach it with long bomb casts with the heavy muskie lure. Anyone watching may have thought I was crazy, but I had to give it a try. Big pike won't back down from anything.
Cast No. 1 was on the outside edge of the trees, almost parallel with the shoreline over about 15 feet of water. Casts Nos. 2-5 were fanned out around the boat with no takers. My sixth cast was a long bomb right down the edge of the trees and directly towards the shore. As I brought that sputtering lure about halfway back, keeping it very close to trees that I could see, a pike came up at knocked it into the air. Fun!
From what I could see, it wasn't a very big pike. However, you never can be too certain about the size or whether or not a fish has got a couple of bigger buddies with him. I set the Top Raider down and flipped a buzzbait to the spot where I'd last seen that pike. Hooked! That pike was still there, ready to bite and fight!
It was a testy battle at first but then quickly subsided. It was a small pike, guessing 4 to 5 pounds. It certainly wasn't anywhere near what the average had been on earlier trips. Nevertheless, it was great fun as any hooked fish always is. Better yet, he tossed the hook at the boat while I was trying to grab hold of him. It was 8:38 a.m. Time to move once more.
For those wondering why I make liberal use of spinnerbaits and buzzbaits, the reasons are simple. Both baits are very effective and have only a single hook. I've had enough treble hooks in my hands to have great respect for them. I've found single hooks are much easier to deal with than double or triple trebles when unhooking a fish or removing them from the net. There is no comparison.
True, the hooking ratio on buzzbaits is somewhat lower than many fishermen would like, but that can be improved with the use of a simple trailer hook. I've found trailers to be particularly effective when used with a flat-bodied buzzbait that planes on the surface easily. Either way, buzzbaits give you a fun look at the fish.
Spinnerbaits might just be the most versatile fishing bait ever produced. They come in a variety of weights, colors and blade patterns. You can fish them shallow, deep, through weedy cover or trees and very seldom get hung up. Fish will often hit them on the fall. They can be retrieved fast or slow, whatever works. I've caught pike, walleyes, bass, perch and crappies on them too.
Most spinnerbaits have a wide enough gap that successful hookups are not a problem. Sometimes I'll add a trailer, particularly if the fish are in a short-striking mode. If you want a bigger profile, use a spinnerbait with big blades or add a bigger skirt. You can add a swirl tail for an effective enticer.
Bass fishermen tie their line directly to the open bend at the front of a spinnerbait. You can't do that for northern pike. They'll bite the line and cut it off. You'll need a leader.
Here's a tip I've found very useful to keep spinnerbaits from sliding through snaps and getting fouled up. Cut a small piece of tubing and slip it over the front notch in the spinnerbait, then snap on your leader. The tubing, such as the size commonly used in home aquariums, keeps the snap in its proper position at the front of the spinnerbait and makes it very easy to switch spinnerbaits without retying. You can use the small piece of tubing with every spinnerbait or cut a new slice for each one.
Back on the water
For this move, which was only about 50 yards, I tossed a buzzbait behind the boat. I've caught numerous fish using this method. The muskie guys do it a lot - keep a lure in the prop wash. It works for pike too, more often than you'd think. If you forget to do that, or prefer not to do, it is a pretty good idea after repositioning to make the first cast directly behind the boat. That's worked for me a few times this year. I caught on after three different pike swirled behind the boat just after I shut the motor off.
This time I had no luck with that "on the move" tactic. When I shut the motor off I pulled the buzzbait right through the boat trail. Still nothing. Oh well. I made three more casts over eight feet of 70.7-degree water. Nothing. Time for the Top Raider. Five long casts and no fish. No swirl. No follows. Nothing on the sonar to show a fish passed under the boat. Time to move.
A short distance away I found myself directly over submerged trees. A few were poking through the water. I didn't like the spot. Edges had proven better, but I made three casts anyway. The result, I felt, was predictable. No fish.
I moved the boat to the outside edge. First cast with a buzz bait - fish! Not big but more fun on the water. It was a 27-inch pike. After a quick release I made one more cast. Nothing. Time to move again, this time about 50 yards farther down the shoreline.
Although I hadn't fished it before, the location looked good to me. There's is only one way to find out. I was in action on my first cast with a black buzzbait. Nice! This pike struck hard and with a big splash that put a big bend in my fishing rod. Awesome display! Good battle too!
It took a couple of minutes to get that fish to cooperate next to the boat so I could grab him. His width was such that I could barely get my hand over the back of his head. Solid fish! It measured 35 inches. It was 8:52 a.m.
As I reached for the scale the pike flopped off the measuring board and onto the floor of the boat. Enough was enough. He needed to get back into the water. I never did get a weight, but was happy to see him swim away. If pike like that continue to grow, Lake Sakakawea will be a terrific destination for trophy pike in just a few short years.
I moved the boat out to 11 feet of water, approximately 30 yards from where I'd hooked my last fish. Five casts with a buzzbait and three more with the Top Raider yielded nothing. Time to move once more. This time I stopped at the same submerged and treed island that I fished briefly the day previous. Bad choice but I guess I thought I had something to prove. Five casts later I wished I hadn't stopped. Nothing.
I stayed in place while a boat was slowly approaching. Two people were in it and I could see they were using typical bass rods. When they were close enough to talk to, I inquired if that had any success. The reply was that they had a nice walleye but were fishing for smallmouth bass.
What a remarkable lake! Take your pick, one or all - northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass or salmon. Those are the most targeted species but there are other fish in the lake too. Lake Sakakawea is big and can be intimidating at times, but right now it is fun and exciting and improving.
At 9:17 a.m. I stopped at a new spot, one where my daughter caught two catch-and-release size pike a few days earlier. I chose a spinnerbait. On my fourth cast I hooked a fish. It came off after just a few seconds. Smallmouth? Maybe. Three more casts were fish-free. Then a smallie jumped behind the boat about one long cast distant. I grabbed a buzzbait and threw it to the spot, twice. Nothing. Really?
I moved the boat closer and made three more casts with the buzzbait. Still nothing. Back to the spinnerbait for four more tries. Nothing. Move.
Now the big lake was calm, very calm. It was 9:29 a.m. and I was stopped over eight feet of 71.5-degree water. It was so clear that I could see the bottom perfectly. Ten casts with a buzzbait and nothing. I moved 20 yards and could feel the heat of the bright sun. Three spinnerbait casts and no fish. Time to move again.
This time my boat was just outside Steinke Bay. I could also see the Centennial boat ramp to the east. It was eight feet of clear water under perfectly calm conditions. I made four casts with a buzzbait and four long bombs with the Top Raider with no results. Move again.
It was 9:59 a.m. and I stopped the boat at the edge of submerged trees, easily visible in the calm water. I liked the spot, just not the conditions. I made four casts with a buzzbait. Nothing. Things had changed. I moved a short distance to 12 feet of 71.4-degree water. I had high hopes for this spot but had no action at all on seven casts with a spinnerbait and six more with a buzzbait. Yuk! Definitely a change in the fish's attitude.
I decided to work back towards the boat ramp. Stopping at one of my favorite spots, I snapped on a five-inch Zara Spook to "walk the dog." I'm not particularly good at that method, but enjoy it. On my fourth cast, with the Spook zigzagging across the water, I saw the outline of a pike behind it. Despite my vocal encouragement for him to take it, he disappeared from view.
Then, a few brief zigzags later, I saw his profile go nearly vertical underneath the Spook. He exploded from that attack pose and came out of the water with the Spook in his mouth. Wow! Very impressive show! That, because of being able to see the whole attack, was probably my most memorable pike of the year. I didn't land him. He shook the hooks a few feet away from the boat. Close enough. Nice fish. Maybe 34-35 inches.
I made 12 more casts with a buzzbait. Nothing. 10:17 a.m. I moved a few yards and made some more casts - six with a Spook and 10 with a frog-colored propeller Spook. Nothing. Time to call it a day. It was 10:27 a.m.
It was another short morning on the water but, unlike the previous day, provided some excitement. The summary was 130 casts, four fish caught and released, three others hooked or splashed in two hours and 11 minutes. Not a bad few hours despite considerable time used for notes and picture taking.
As I pulled out of the marina I saw three boats at the fish-cleaning station. They had some decent walleyes.
I'll definitely return. There's just too many fish that need to be taught a few lessons about fishing.