GARRISON - There are 20 different fish recognized on North Dakota's listing of record game fish, but it is the walleye that is the most sought-after fish in the state. "Old Marble Eyes" is good eating, plentiful and often cooperative enough to satisfy the efforts of thousands of fishermen all across the state.
This year walleye fishermen are rediscovering the joys of walleye fishing on Lake Sakakawea. The lake's walleye population has been steadily rebounding following problems associated with low water conditions a few years ago. The skinny and small walleyes are long gone now. In their place is a bulging population of fish both naturally produced and stocked into the lake.
The growth rate is good, too, evident in catch after catch on the state's largest body of water. Jigs tipped with Twister Tails, minnows, nightcrawlers or Gulp-type baits have all proven successful so far this season. So too have the reliable standards of the walleye fisherman's arsenal - Lindy rigs, bottom bouncers and crankbaits.
"It has been absolutely amazing. There's been a lot of 20- to 23-inch walleyes that will rival any fishery in the country," said Brian Fettig, Bismarck.
Fettig heads up Lake Oahe Guide Service of Bismarck. However, with Lake Oahe suffering its own version of low water woes and replacement of forage fish, Fettig and his fellow guides are spending more and more hours on Lake Sakakawea this year. It is a situation that works perfectly well for guide Jeff Enzminger of Bismarck.
Enzminger has been targeting Lake Sakakawea walleyes for several years. He is finding this season to be extremely encouraging.
Ian Placek, Bismarck, holds a 25-inch walleye caught in Douglas Bay this past week. Also pictured is Jeff Enzminger, Lake Oahe Guide Service.
"It's a guide's dream right now," said Enzminger while fishing a shallow flat in Douglas Bay this past week. "Sakakawea has been awesome this year. It started about Memorial weekend with a lot of 23- to 26-inch fish. We're still getting a lot of over-20s this year. There's a lot of 14- to 18-inchers, but that's fun too. Anytime we can get fish we are happy."
There's already been plenty of happy walleye fishermen in a number of well known bays on Lake Sakakawea this year - Douglas, Berthold, Beaver Creek, Garrison, Beulah and Centennial among them. On Lake Sakakawea, the bays can be huge and will hold catchable walleyes for much of the year. The usual pattern holds that as the weather warms, the walleyes will congregate on lake points immediately outside the bays.
"I've been staying in the bays yet," said Enzminger. "I haven't hit too many of the lake points. My message to fishermen right now is, if I was going out, I'd fish a bay. I've been sticking around eight foot of water, maybe sneaking into 12 foot once in a while. I'm looking for walleyes to go a little deeper as the summer progresses."
There's no real signs of that yet though. The number of fishing boats tucked inside bays on Lake Sakakawea still far outnumbers those seen on the main lake - a sign that fishermen are content and that walleyes are cooperating. Cleaning stations are busy too.
"I think Lake Sakakawea will probably stay pretty much consistent for a while now," said Fettig. "Especially if it stays relatively calm."
While the Lake Oahe Guides track and catch walleyes, they are also noting that other species of fish are bending rods, too. Smallmouth bass and northern pike seem to be everywhere on the big water.
"There's a lot of 3-pound smallies and a lot of pike 5 to 10 pounds or so," said Fettig. "It makes for a good time. There's a lot of action out there."
Lake Sakakawea's immense size can make it intimidating for fishermen. This year though, at least thus far in the fishing season, the fish have been taking a lot of the guesswork and searching out of the equation. Most fishermen who pick an area and work it are finding success.
Earlier in the season plastic baits were doing real well at fooling walleyes but, according to Enzminger, a change may be underway.
"As of late live bait has been the ticket. Live bait has been dominating," said Enzminger.
Enzminger was fishing with Ian Placek of Bismarck this past week. Placek is a member of the North Dakota National Guard. He was severely wounded when an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he was in while clearing roads in Afghanistan. Two fellow guardsmen in the vehicle were killed.
"Now I'm transitioning back to real life. Taking time and going fishing and healing up so I can go back to work," said Placek while pitching a jig and minnow into the shallows in Douglas Bay this past week.
Placek says he'll likely need another surgery to repair his injured right foot. For now he's happy the walleyes on Lake Sakakawea are cooperating and that he is able to enjoy his time on the water.
"It's a way to relax and I've got the time to do it now, so I'll do it," said Placek while looking out over light waves on Lake Sakakawea toward a shoreline of broken bluffs covered with bright green vegetation and topped by a brilliant blue sky carrying white, billowy clouds.
It was a picture-perfect day. The walleyes were biting. Placek released several and tossed a couple into the live well.
"He's kicking me today," said Enzminger. "Looks like I'm buying lunch."
Lake Oahe Guides can be reached at (lakeoaheguides.com) or by calling 400-2083.