West for walleyes: N.D. lake serves up excursion to remember

We hadn't even hit the water, and already, this was turning into a memorable fishing trip - in the very best sense of the word.

The realization hit me when we drove into the Killdeer Mountains, heading north on North Dakota Highway 22 en route from Dickinson to McKenzie Bay, our launching point on the massive Missouri River reservoir known as Lake Sakakawea.

For a flatlander whose experience with southwestern North Dakota is limited, at best, the sight of the Killdeer Mountains was a striking reminder that there's a lot of state out there to enjoy beyond the Red River Valley.

As for the walleye fishing, let's just say I hope to make the westward trek to Sakakawea an annual event.

It's everything I'd heard it was - and more.

Jason Laumb had set the stage for this early June adventure. A research manager at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, Laumb grew up in Berthold, N.D.

Lake Sakakawea, with its majestic bluffs and rugged shorelines, is his home water.

Despite the distance from Grand Forks, Laumb says he tries to make it west to Sakakawea twice a year. On this trip, we'd be fishing with his dad, Tom, of Berthold, and brother, Brian, of Dickinson. Tom works as a train conductor for BNSF, and Brian is a physical therapist in Dickinson.

"It's sort of a homecoming," Jason Laumb said. "I like fishing Devils Lake, but if I had to choose a lake where I was going to go out and have consistent success, Sakakawea certainly would be it."

It's been that way since he was in grade school, and the whole family - two boys, two girls and Mom and Dad - would pile into a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 20-horse motor and head for Shell Creek on the Van Hook Arm, about a 50-mile drive from their home in Berthold.

There'd be a chance to rehash some of those old memories - and make some new ones - on this day. Only this time, the four of us would be fishing in two fiberglass boats made for big water, and not crammed into a 14-foot aluminum boat.

Tom and Brian each had taken a week's vacation and already had logged a couple of days on the water and spent two others shooting prairie dogs.

Jason and I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fishing on Sakakawea had been pretty good earlier in the week, but a cold front the previous day made the prospects this Friday morning less certain.

The story of Sakakawea literally is a tale of rise and fall. The big lake rose from the shadows of the Garrison Dam, which was built on the Missouri River in the 1950s and flooded more than 150,000 acres of land to create the reservoir known as Sakakawea.

Water levels have fluctuated over the years, but a prolonged drought and lack of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains that feed the Missouri River farther upstream have reduced Sakakawea to a shadow of its former self.

The reservoir today stands at an elevation of about 1,817 feet above sea level, a whopping 37 feet lower than its record high in 1997 and nearly 30 feet lower than managers would like to see it.

It's risen some this summer, but there's still a long way to go.

The lack of water has created a challenge for fisheries managers.

According to Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the decline in water levels has decimated populations of smelt, a primary forage fish that needs cold water habitat to survive.

These days, that habitat is scarce on Sakakawea.

Salmon also have suffered from the decline, but Sakakawea continues to provide good walleye fishing, Power says, especially in the middle and lower thirds of the lake. The upper third of Sakakawea, which has some of the most scenic country, either is too muddy to fish because of the Yellowstone River that feeds it - or areas that once attracted anglers now are high and dry, Power said.

And without smelt - the fish equivalent of a greasy cheeseburger - in their diets, the walleyes just aren't as chunky as they once were, Power said.

"The bigger they are, the thinner they are," he said.

Without a point of reference, Sakakawea still looks like a big lake, even if the water's down. Laumb could see the difference, though, on this Friday morning as he steered his boat out of the Little Missouri Arm into the main lake.

"Man, the lake looks small," he said. "It's water as far as you can see in two directions, but it still looks small."

Brian Laumb had gotten a tip that a point a few miles around the corner from McKenzie Bay Marina was producing walleyes. He and his dad led the way in Tom's 17-foot Warrior, a sturdy rig with more than a few Sakakawea adventures under its hull, while Jason and I followed close behind.

There's an excitement that comes from fishing new water, and I took in the scenery while scrambling to get my tackle in order so I'd be ready to go when we got to our fishing spot.

Fishing Lake Sakakawea, Laumb says, is like fishing any reservoir. The walleyes tend to hang in shallower water off the numerous shoreline points and along the breaklines that drop into the depths of the main river channel.

We'd hop from point to point until we found walleyes that cooperated.

We didn't have to hop very far.

My first Sakakawea walleye hit a fathead minnow fished with a live bait rig just a few minutes into the morning. There was no guesswork; this walleye had a meal on its mind.

The fish measured 21 inches and didn't look that skinny to me. But it couldn't compare with the days when smelt were abundant, Laumb said.

"They are not as chunky," he said later. "They're healthy looking, but they're not what Sakakawea walleyes used to look like. They're just not as fat as they used to be, especially those larger fish."

Our fears about fishing post-cold front conditions soon subsided, and we encountered steady action throughout the morning in 13 to 22 feet of water. Walleyes dominated the catch, but the deeper water also produced some respectable saugers.

Laumb released a couple of walleyes that we estimated at 25 inches.

After a midafternoon lull, we moved to a different area and set up a drift along a shoreline that offered a beautiful view of the bluffs that towered on the western horizon along the Little Missouri River.

Using a drift sock to slow our speed, wind conditions were perfect for drifting. The walleyes had taken a liking to jigs, and Jason and I released the 10th and final walleyes in our two-person limit probably a dozen times.

Filling that limit would have given us a reason to quit, and we didn't want this day to end. So, we kept catching walleyes - and kept letting them go - as the sun dipped its way toward the western horizon.

"One more fish," I thought to myself. "Just one more fish."

It was hard to leave, but the trek back to Dickinson through the Killdeer Mountains and a road lined with whitetails, mule deer and antelope called us.

Back at the marina, the four of us cleaned our fish and toasted a memorable day that had passed much too quickly.

As we reluctantly hit the road, Tom Laumb might have put it best:

"And to think we get to do this again tomorrow," he said.