Every year some of the earliest open-water boat fishing in North Dakota occurs on the Missouri River. Historically, from Washburn past Bismarck-Mandan, this “first boats in the water” has occurred anywhere from late February through early April.
I’ll qualify that, however, by noting that Nelson Lake in Oliver County, and the Garrison Dam Tailrace, are open year-round and sometimes host boats on nice days in the midst of winter, so they don’t really count as the first “ice-off” of the spring.
This is the last week of March and eager anglers are still waiting for a clear Missouri River boat ramp. Whenever that occurs, it looks like another good year for walleyes on the Missouri and the upper end of Lake Oahe down to the South Dakota border.
Paul Bailey, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s south central district fisheries supervisor, discussed the status of this walleye fishery on the March 21 Game and Fish Outdoors Online weekly webcast. Some of the highlights from his interview are noted below.
• On Lake Oahe, walleye abundance is very good right now. A lot of these fish are going to be on the smaller side, with that good reproductive success we have had in recent years. But we have been conducting annual sampling surveys on Oahe since 1968, and in 2018, we saw the fifth highest walleye abundance we have ever documented on Lake Oahe. Their size structure does leave a little bit to be desired right now. About 68 percent of the walleye in Lake Oahe are under 15 inches in size right now. Again, due to the good reproductive success we had in 2014-2016, 27 percent of those fish are in that 15- to 20-inch range, and then 5 percent of those fish are more than 20 inches.
• One of the things we are seeing on Lake Oahe right now is, those fish are so extraordinarily abundant that there are a few more of them out there than we really have groceries to sustain. So right now, anglers should not feel bad about harvesting some of these smaller fish, that will actually be doing us somewhat of a favor on Lake Oahe. Thin their numbers a little bit. There will be more groceries to go around for the rest of those fish and, hopefully, they will continue to grow into the more desirable sizes anglers like to see.
• In the Missouri River above Lake Oahe, we have got that strong 2014 year-class and a lot of those fish are now in that 14 up to 16-inch range. So we do see a little better size structure on the Missouri River with about 44 percent of now into that 15- to 20-inch range.
• We broke the state record walleye last year on the Missouri River, and in our sampling, we are consistently seeing some trophy size walleye. Right now, we have no evidence to say that anglers under our present regulations are impacting the ability of the Missouri River and Lake Oahe to produce good numbers of fish over 20 inches.