Fishing & Boating News

The Little Walleye Town that Could, and Did

by: Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson,

The big lake will play host to the South Dakota Walleye Classic, an event built around family fun, Aug. 11-13.
Photo by Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
(Jun. 01, 2011 - Woodbury, MN) There were few people living in the region when Lewis and Clark passed through what is now Akaska, S.D. Truth be told, there aren't many people that live there now.

"It's a huge metropolis! The town boasts of a population of 50, but I think there are actually 36," joked George Kessler, hunting and fishing guide and a member of the South Dakota tourism advisory board.

But that number swells on weekends when 400 to 500 people arrive to fish Lake Oahe, one of the state's premiere walleye destinations and the fourth largest reservoir in the United States. Multiply that number by 10 times again when the town hosts the South Dakota Walleye Classic, coming up this summer on Aug. 11-13.

This year will be the fourth annual event, but it will be the first time the tournament features a team/co-angler format. Each boat will have a two-angler team on board plus a third co-angler chosen for each boat at random each day. This format is unique in that it allows two friends who are familiar with each other to fish as a team, along with a co-angler, for big bucks.

Kessler spends November through March guiding hunters to pheasants through his full service hunting lodge, Big Shot Pheasant Fields. March through November is reserved for chasing northern pike and walleye on the massive reservoir. He recalled returning to the boat ramp after pounding walleyes all day during the dog days of summer when he noticed the only vehicle in the parking lot belonged to him. "What's up with that?" he asked his fishing partner.

Kessler then suddenly realized the northern reaches of Lake Oahe were among South Dakota's best-kept secrets. Many vacationers were focusing on the area from Pierre to Gettysburg, SD, but few people were visiting from that point north to Mobridge and on upstream to Bismarck, ND.

"This stretch of the river has some off the greatest fishing in the world, but less than 8,000 people live from Pierre to Bismarck," he said. People overlook the northern reaches of Lake Oahe, but the fishing is phenomenal."

Walleyes on the big Dakota reservoir used to be found primarily in deep water during the summer months. According to Kessler, things started to change about 10 years ago when the walleye's primary forage base of smelt shifted. A record amount of water was released at the dam during the time of the year when a high percentage of the smelt were schooled up in the deepest part of the lake, just above the dam at Pierre. Consequently, a good portion of the smelt got swept out of the impoundment.

Although smelt are still present in Oahe, the walleyes have adapted to feeding on the great numbers of gizzard shad and freshwater shrimp. Smelt are found deep in summer, while shad are shallower. Walleyes go where the food is, so they have moved from 35 to 40 foot depths to 15 to 25 feet. While fishermen have moved with the walleyes, their live-bait tactics have stayed pretty much the same. It's hard to beat a Lindy Rig tipped with a chub or nightcrawler.

"Lots of guys are using heavier weights to get down to the 20 to 25 foot range," Kessler said. Bottom bouncers, 3-foot snells and plain hooks, tipped with a half nightcrawler, are very effective.

With so much water to fish, the first task is to cut the target water down to size. Structure is the first ingredient, as always. Reservoir fishing is a lot about jumping from point to point. Look for points close to the old river channel, which supplies the deepest water in the lake. Clay bottoms are typical, but if you find patches of sand and/or gravel, that's even better. Then motor over each likely point until fish and bait appear on your screen. "You won't have to go far from the ramp," Kessler said. "It's usually not more than a 10 to 15 minute process. If you can't find bait fish, just go deeper or shallower."

When walleyes start taking the bait, note the productive depth. It's likely that action will quit if you move too shallow or too deep. Carefully watch your sonar for both mapping and depth precision.

Some flats also hold fish, Kessler cautioned, so don't overlook them. Trolling with traditional crankbaits can come into play. A new lure from Cotton Cordell, called the Walleye Stinger, works well in addition to the Lindy Shadling. Try a mix of colors, but make sure some of the lures are natural colors.

And don't be afraid to target the portion of the water column over tops of submerged trees. Try to run your crankbaits so that they just tick the tops of the branches.

One factor to consider when fishing the north end of the reservoir: the water is shallow enough that it warms first and cools late, so fishing is good all season long, Kessler said. Unlike Minnesota and Wisconsin, South Dakota has no closed season for walleyes.

The South Dakota Walleye Classic will be held Aug. 11-13 and launches from the Swan Creek boat ramp near Akaska. The payouts total $60,000 based upon a full field of 60 boats. The co-angler payouts will total over $7,500. The entry fee will be $1,000 per team and $300 per co-angler.

As in previous years, Akaska will host a festival surrounding the tournament Aug. 10-15. Entertainment, a street dance, vendors and a kids' fishing day will be held, so bring your family.

"It is a family event and we've worked hard to make it so," said Kessler. "We really like to see the young kids because we're going to teach them how to fish."

Take Highway 1804 to find the fun and the great walleye action. The road follows the path of Lewis & Clark, and it's the only one anyone has bothered to pave since they did. For more information contact Kessler at 605-380-1176.