By Dylan Tramp
At 2,341 miles, the Missouri River is the longest river in North America. And, it just so happens that it also offers some of the best fishing in the Midwest.
Beginning in northwest Montana, the Missouri River flows through a chain of flood-control dams as it meanders through the Upper Midwest. The dams were built thanks to the Pick-Sloan Act of 1944, and the gigantic reservoirs that were created became prime habitat for walleyes and other popular game fish species.
For anyone not familiar with the Missouri River and its reservoirs, there are six dams creating six reservoirs within Montana and the Dakotas. The dams upstream to downstream include:
• Fort Peck Dam near Nashua, Mont., creates Fort Peck Lake
• Garrison Dam near Garrison, N.D., creates Lake Sakakawea
• Oahe Dam near Pierre, S.D., creates Lake Oahe
• Big Bend Dam north of Chamberlain, S.D., creates Lake Sharpe
• Fort Randall Dam near Pickstown, S.D., creates Lake Francis Case
• Gavins Point Dam west of Yankton, S.D., creates Lewis and Clark Lake
The world-class fishing opportunities found on these reservoirs are no secret to anglers, who have have been targeting the upper reaches of the river for over six decades. With that in mind, here are 10 time-tested tips that can help you find and catch more summer walleyes on the “Mighty Mo.”
1. Cover More Water
Fishing these enormous reservoirs can be an intimidating task. With so many miles of shoreline, where do you start? Fish could be located anywhere within any given body of water, and finding them is more than half the battle.
The old saying that 90% of the fish are located in 10% of the water consistently rings true on the Missouri River. Be sure to gas up the boat, and be prepared to cover vast amounts of water. Don’t waste time concentrating on an area that has been unproductive. Make one pass through an area, and if you catch fish, investigate a little further. If the area seems void of fish, don’t be afraid to fire up the motor and check a new area.
One very effective way to cover water is to rely on your electronics. Make a pass through the area and watch your locator closely to reveal whether or not fish are concentrated in the area. Pay special attention to what depth these fish are cruising and how far they are situated off the lake bottom. If you mark a heavy concentration of fish, drop a GPS waypoint and spend your time fishing productive areas.
Another productive way to survey for fish is to throw out a couple lures and troll the area. This tactic is best deployed when fish are spread out and not exhibiting schooling behavior. Pick off one fish at a time while effectively surveying the area with your electronics. If you zero in on a concentration of fish, consider slowing it down and going with a more finesse approach or live-bait presentation.
There are a few terrain features that a walleye angler can rely on throughout these reservoirs, and shoreline points are traditionally one of the most productive. These prominent points protrude out into the water and offer great structure and contours where walleye often congregate.
A very simple but highly effective way to fish these lakes is to target main lake points and hop from one point to the next until you find a school of active walleyes. You might fish 20 points in a day, but with persistence you’re almost sure to find hungry walleyes lurking on a point.
3. Bottom & Shoreline Transitions
The next visual feature that an angler can key in on is a transition along a shoreline. In any stretch along the Missouri River, the shoreline is likely to be made up of one main soil type, whether it be clay, sand, gravel, etc.
For example, if you are fishing a sandy stretch of river and notice that one area in particular has turned to gravel or a small boulder field, this abnormality can be just enough to attract and hold fish. Even manmade shoreline modifications such as riprap or rock embankments will often concentrate fish. By paying attention to little subtleties like what kind of soil the shoreline is composed of, you might just find the ticket to patterning these walleye.
4. Windswept Shorelines
Paying attention to weather patterns can also give you an edge when it comes to consistently targeting walleye. For example, if you notice that the wind has been blowing hard out of the north for several days, the southern shoreline is often a good starting point. Even if the waves are still crashing into the south shore, tough it out. These areas will often outproduce the calm bluebird shorelines that are protected from the wind.
Two popular beliefs as to why this is the case are that the bait fish have either been blown into these windswept shorelines or they’ve been forced to these areas to feed on microorganisms and plankton. No matter the reason, where you find bait fish, you will find predatory fish. Every once in awhile, a heavy concentration of seagulls or pelicans can also be a visual cue that high amounts of bait fish are present. Who knew knowledge of the food chain would ever come in handy in practical life situations?
5. Mud Lines
Many of us are visual learners, or claim to be. Another visual tool that walleye fisherman should pay attention to is the presence of a mud line. By mud line I am talking about an area of water where dirty or stained water meets clear water. On the Missouri River, this is usually created by an eroding point that is casting a murky shadow on the surrounding water.
A mud line can also be created at the confluence of where a river or creek carrying stained water dumps into clearer water. There is usually a definitive line where relatively clean and transparent water meets dirty water.
If you see a mud line, it’s worth stopping to investigate. Walleyes and other game fish often lurk in the shadows of these mud lines in hopes of ambush-ing bait fish. It is also possible that bait fish are taking to the turbid water in hopes of finding sanctuary from predators.
6. Weed-Bed Walleyes
Fishing large weed beds is often thought of as a bass fishing strategy and isn’t always utilized by anglers who are fishing for walleyes. As previously discussed, fish naturally gravitate toward structure of any kind, and in certain fisheries weeds are the best structure available. The bait fish will be hiding in the rhubarb, and so will patrolling walleye.
It can often be tricky and downright frustrating to fish for walleye in heavy vegetation, but keep in mind that many fishing tactics can be modified to fish these weed lines. I have found that some of the most productive tactics are trolling lures along the perimeter of the weeds or pitching a light jig into open pockets or along the fringe. If you are dealing with weed line that’s not too thick, you can even effectively pull a bot-tom bouncer through the vegetation. The trick is to be patient and learn to feel the difference between a strike and a clump of weeds holding onto your hook. If you learn to ignore the weeds and pull through them, you can have great success fishing these weed beds.
7. Post-Spawn Migration
As a general rule of thumb, walleyes tend to run upriver to spawn. This is not always the case, but more times than not, this holds true.
After they’ve finished spawning, they will often start to migrate toward their summer feeding grounds. This can be an important factor to consider due to the sheer size of these reservoirs. For instance, in early June fishing in the farthest downstream section of river might make for a long day, as it will take fish a considerable amount of time to swim nearly 100 miles to reach the deep, downriver portions near the dams of these reservoirs. Keep in mind this is a generalization, but it is something to consider during early summer fishing trips when fish-ing further upriver might lead to better results.
8. Rigging Tactics
Now that you know a few physical features to look for, what kind of tackle should you use? Trolling crankbaits is always an effective option, and don’t forget that trolling gives you the luxury of covering lots of water while remaining productive and catching aggressively feeding fish. As a bonus, it is generally believed that larger fish are often caught on artificial lures.
After you’ve located a potential fishing spot, you might want to slow things down and finesse a few of the picky and less aggressive fish into biting. Many anglers will tell you that live-bait fishing is the only way to go. Rig up a bottom bouncer or Lindy rig with a 3- to 4-foot leader and a juicy nightcrawler and you’re well equipped to have a good time.
A longer snell may be desired if the water is extremely clear and the fish appear to be finicky. However, be careful of choosing too long of a snell because at a certain length, your bottom bouncer won’t be tall enough to keep your hook from dragging on the ground. This is an ineffective presentation that’s also a recipe for snags. To combat this, slip a float onto your leader before tying on the hook. These floats keep your bait off the bottom and in the optimal position for a walleye strike.
There is a plethora of live-bait accessories and attractants on the market for fishermen to choose from. From spinning blades to spinning hooks, floats to swimming lure bodies, you are sure to find something at your local retailer that trips your trigger. My only advice is to keep trying new rigs until you find the magic combination.
When it comes to live-bait fishing, speed can be critical. You want to keep the boat moving at a fair pace in hopes of covering lots of water, but at the same time you need to maintain contact with the bottom.
If you find your bottom bouncer or Lindy rig is infrequently ticking the bottom, you might need to slow down. In general, it seems like the magic bottom-bouncing speed lies somewhere between 1 and 2 mph. Try a heavier weight if you are struggling to maintain bottom contact. If you let out too much line in hopes of combating the lack of bottom contact, you run the risk of dragging your bottom bouncer on its side rather than at the proper 45-degree angle.
9. Experiment with Bait Selection
Another worthwhile tactic is to experiment with different types of live bait. I almost always start with half a crawler, but some days you might find that the fish prefer leeches or fathead minnows.
On another note, do not rule out plastics or artificial baits. There have been many days where artificial baits such as the Gulp! Killer Crawler, Spinner Crawler, Leech or similar products have kept pace with or even surpassed live bait.
There are a few key benefits in which artificial baits excel while their live-bait counterparts fail. One being that if you choose to run a spinning hook, such as the Mustad Slow Death hooks, the increased rigidity of the plastic bait really helps the entire presentation to spin more effectively. While you might get a slow wobble out of a limp nightcrawler, a plastic worm can be spinning like a tornado and just might be what it takes to elicit a strike.
The second benefit is that you rarely have to adjust or check your artificial bait. Rest assured that your Gulp! Crawler is still on your hook and doing its thing, and more time with your bait in the water equals more fish.
10. Deep-Water Trolling
As the summer progresses and water temperatures start to skyrocket, you might be more tempted to spend the day on the lake lounging in a beach chair. While there’s nothing wrong with that, if you want to continue pursuing walleye, your tactics may need to be modified.
During this phase, fish will likely be deeper than they have been all spring and summer to capitalize on the cooler water temperatures found at these greater depths.
An effective way to catch these fish is to troll with lead core fishing line. If you are unfamiliar with lead core, it is simply braided fishing line that contains a small amount of lead that will enable your baits to reach greater depths than without lead core.
Throughout the warmer months, you might find fish hanging out in 30-50 feet of water, and lead core is a great tool to get your bait down to the strike zone. Lead core can be used to pull crankbaits, spinner baits, live bait or even your favorite artificial baits.
A lead core application that is often utilized in late summer is locating submerged structure, such as flooded timber, on you electronic fish finder. If you see fish suspended among this timber, take note of what depth the fish seem to be hanging around and deploy your lead core fishing line accordingly.
Another strategy that can be used to combat the late summer lull is to maximize your early morning and sunset fishing time. You may even consider fishing after dark. Walleye tend to move in shallow in pursuit of bait fish during these lowlight hours. This is your time to strike, as well.
With these tips in mind, I hope you are able to get out and enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that the Missouri River has to offer. If you find yourself in pursuit of summer walleyes, I hope you might be able to take away one or two of these tactics and add them to your bag of tricks.
About the Author: Dylan Tramp is an avid hunter, angler and outdoor writer from Rapid City, S.D.