Count me among the thousands of North Dakota anglers who enjoy knowing that if we want to experience the thrill of catching a hard-fighting Chinook salmon, we can do it without leaving the state.
If that experience is on your bucket list as it is on mine, the next several weeks, plus the late summer period next year, will provide great opportunities to catch one of these silver streaks of the big water.
Russ Kinzler, a fisheries biologist at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s district office in Riverdale, recently covered the status of the salmon fishery in Lake Sakakawea on the Game and Fish weekly video news program, “North Dakota Outdoors.” Basically, the report was nothing but good news.
“With the year-classes of salmon we have in the lake right now, salmon fishing should be tremendous this year," Kinzler said.
Salmon anglers on the deep, eastern end of Lake Sakakawea don’t really start to gear up until the middle of July, and fishing from boats with downriggers typically improves as August rolls into September.
And it’s in September into October. when the salmon start to move into shallower water as part of their annual spawning effort, that people like me who don’t have a big boat and downriggers stand a fighting chance of catching one while casting from shore.
After a few down years following the Missouri River flooding in 2011, salmon are doing well in Sakakawea right now because the rainbow smelt that feed all those salmon are doing well. Smelt, like salmon, inhabit the deep, cold waters of the reservoir, and, despite serious drought in that part of the state, Sakakawea’s water level is relatively high. That means more cold water habitat.
The Game and Fish Department started stocking salmon in Lake Sakakawea in 1976 to take advantage of that deep, cold water. Smelt were stocked several years prior to that to establish the forage or food base.
Where they exist naturally, salmon spawn in flowing rivers. Since Sakakawea doesn’t have that sort of environment, the fishery wouldn’t continue to thrive without an annual egg-taking effort by biologists.
That typically starts in October. Fisheries teams go out in specially equipped electro-shocking boats to capture salmon that are going through their instinctual spawning effort. The eggs are hatched at nearby Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. The tiny salmon grow in the hatchery over the winter, before they are released the following May at about 5 inches long.
It’s basically a full year after they are stocked before they become a catchable fish.
When the lake is full like it is now, with an accompanying high smelt population, Kinzler says they can reach 3 to 5 pounds at that point, and up to 8 to 10 pounds the year after that.
Three years after stocking, which is about the end of a North Dakota salmon’s life span, Kinzler says you can just imagine what one of those salmon would feel like at the end of a fishing rod.
In the 40 years since the Game and Fish Department’s salmon program started, there haven’t been many years when chances were better for satisfying that imagination.