RIVERDALE - It is time to dig out the Dipsy Divers and hook up the cannonballs. Salmon fishing is starting to pick up at Lake Sakakawea. The question salmon anglers face now is, where is the best place to find fish?
The Great Planers Salmon Derby usually provides some answers as to where the salmon are roaming in Lake Sakakawea. Not this year. The derby was scheduled for Aug. 16 out of Lake Sakakawea State Park, but the weather was anything but cooperative.
"We were all ready to launch but it looked like flashbulbs going off. There was a lot of lightning," said Blair Ihmels, Bismarck, tournament chairman. "It was just a good decision not to fish. We drew for prizes as the system moved through."
Amy Bergan, Fargo, holds two salmon caught on Lake Sakakawea last Sunday. Bergan was fishing with her parents, DelRay and Deb Bergan of Bismarck.
Al Nosbusch, Pick City, views the water ahead while salmon fishing on Lake Sakakawea. Note the downriggers in use on each side of the boat.
A fisherman waves while trolling deep water for salmon. In the background at the left is the Riverdale bluffs. The face of Garrison Dam can also be seen in the distance.
The system referred to by Ihmels carried with it torrential rain. According to National Weather Service reports, rainfall totals from the slow moving storm ranged from 3 to 10 inches throughout the region.
"It rained pretty hard," said Al Nosbusch, Pick City. "It came down in buckets. My rain gauge was showing 3 1/2 inches."
"The rain was significant but it was more the lightning than the rain," said Ihmels. "I know over 2 inches fell between 7 and 9 a.m. I saw a ground strike just south of Underwood. As a Coast Guard captain I respect things more than ever.
The weather kept the small salmon fishing fleet from venturing forth on derby day, but on the following day a number of salmon fishermen were on the water under nearly ideal weather conditions. They were inspired by reports of large salmon taken to a local scale a few days earlier.
"People from Grand Forks caught a 13.8-pounder Friday night. There was a 17.9-pounder weighed in at Pick City too," said Ihmels.
Salmon that size will get any fisherman's attention.
"They're big this year. They are getting some nice fish," said Dave Fryda, Riverdale, Missouri River System fisheries supervisor. "Thirteen pounds is pretty common. They are nice fish and the conditions are good, but there's no reason for them to concentrate down here."
Typically Lake Sakakawea salmon move throughout the entire reservoir during the summer months and return to the lower end of the reservoir in early fall. However, this year is anything but typical. Temperatures this summer have been so cool that the thermocline, a level in the water where warm surface temperatures bump against deeper and cooler water in Lake Sakakawea, has failed to fully materialize. With a distinctive thermocline in place, cold-water-living smelt remain beneath it along with the salmon. Although smelt numbers are believed to be quite high, this year is much different in terms of locating schools of smelt and the predatory salmon who follow them.
"The smelt and salmon are pretty much everywhere this year," explained Fryda. "There's not much of a thermocline. Usually there's a fairly strong thermocline but the temps above the thermocline are still cool."
Fryda says he has not previously seen such a weak thermocline on Lake Sakakawea. Salmon and smelt usually seek out deep water with temperatures in the low 60s during the summer months. Normally that means depths of 50 or more feet of water, but this year an acceptable range of water temperature for those fish can be found in as little as 12 to 15 feet.
"There's been no warm weather, no thermocline," said Ihmels. "There's a multitude of habitat temperatures. We usually have warm temperatures that pushes those fish into the cold water zone at 50 to 60 feet down."
Thus far, the on-the-water salmon anglers have been utilizing Dipsy Divers and downriggers to get their favorite presentations down to usual depths. Dipsy Divers are a plastic saucer that takes lures down much deeper than conventional trolling will allow. Downriggers are manual or electronically operated devices that lower aircraft cable with cannonball-style weights up to 10 pounds into deep water. A quick release system is affixed to the downrigger line to pull lures down into the strike zone. When a fish is hooked the release is triggered and the fishing line separates from the downrigger ball.
Catching salmon in deep water is normal for this time of year, but thus far the fishing has been slow. Without a meaningful thermocline the salmon are not locked into a deep water pattern. That means they might be found anywhere in the water column and that makes finding them more of a challenge.
The good news is, many of the salmon are running on the big side and giving fishermen who hook into them a memorable experience. Furthermore, this could turn out to be an excellent year for those boaters using deep diving crank baits or fishing from shore.
"2011 was a very poor downrigger bite but shore fishing was good," said Fryda. "2012 was probably the best downrigger fishing in a decade but shore fishing and long-lining was tough that year. Last year was kind of in-between the two. I fully expect a very good spawning season."
According to Fryda, salmon can be expected to start showing up in good numbers at the lower end of the reservoir in early September. Spawning operations are scheduled to begin Oct 1.
"I think it is just getting started," added Ihmels. "We are just seeing the beginning. It could go well into September this year. It'll be a later bite. One thing I can tell you is, there is going to be some bigger fish."
The Great Planers have an outing scheduled for Labor Day weekend at Lake Sakakawea State Park. That event usually produces a good snapshot of what fall salmon fishermen can expect.