By Nick Simonson
Following a heavier than normal snowpack this winter in the mountains which feed the Missouri River system, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) will begin a late-summer drawdown of Lake Sakakawea, which will drop the elevation of the reservoir from a forecasted height of 1,846.3 feet at the end of July to around 1,843.4 feet by the end of August, giving anglers the added element of falling water levels to figure out during the back half of the summer angling season.
“Even though it has been dry the past several weeks, we had a snowpack this winter that was 148 percent of normal, so the reservoir climbed pretty good into July and it has been fairly steady,” explained Mike Swenson, Engineer with the COE’s Missouri River Basin Management at the Omaha, NE office, “we had a higher than average summer release due to that snowpack, and we didn’t want the water on Sakakawea to get too high,” he concluded.
Swenson explained that the releases were part of a normal plan to get the water evacuated prior to the buildup of next year’s snowpack, commenting that the higher inflows early on not only helped maintain levels for recreational use of Lake Sakakawea, but also assisted in generation of hydroelectric power from the turbines in Garrison Dam. By September, Swenson expects the amount of water released from the dam to drop from 33,000 cfs to 18,000 cfs, and the elevation of Lake Sakakawea to be at a forecasted 1,841.7 feet. The amount of summer runoff into the reservoir has been affected by recent drought conditions, but Lake Sakakawea’s level isn’t influenced as much by local runoff (or lack thereof) as it is by the water coming from last winter’s snowpack.
On the lake, fishing has remained strong as anglers have had extended high water conditions to aid in their efforts. According to Sarah Mackey, owner of McKenzie Bay Marina, fishing has remained excellent throughout the summer with the higher water levels, which only now have begun to drop slightly, about a month later than normal, by her observations.
“Fishing has been phenomenal, with the bite still continuing now,” said Mackey, “normally by now, the fish have cleared out of the mouth, but they’ve stayed up here,” she concluded, explaining that anglers are finding consistent success for limits of walleyes up to 23 inches in length on a variety of bottom-bouncer rigs trolled in 7 to 23 feet of water.
Good fishing conditions were echoed by Carey Gieser, owner of Six Mile Corner in Garrison, ND, as fish still linger in the back of bays.
“Anglers should still fish shallow into the bays, and go way into the back of them, as the fish are still there,” Gieser recommended, “target anywhere from 12 to 18 feet of water in Douglas Bay and Steinke Bay,” he concluded, recommending leeches and crawlers on spinners and slow-death rigs for walleyes.
As waters begin to drop with the late-summer drawdown, Gieser is still confident that the methods which have been working will continue to pay off and fishing will remain good. All that is required is a little adjustment in where anglers look for fish, going out from where they’re finding fish now and looking deeper.
“As the water goes down, start fishing the points of the bays and the first point going into them,” Gieser predicted, “the fish in the bay will start moving out onto main lake structures,” he stated, advising continued use of spinners and slow-death rigs, but also using deep-diving crankbaits for those walleyes that move into deeper water.
Anglers can track the height of Lake Sakakawea and other reservoirs via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website for the Missouri River Basin, complete with daily elevation updates along with inflow and outflow data to assist in their fishing efforts.
(Featured Photo: While a bit later than normal, water levels will start to fall on Lake Sakakawea in the coming month as part of a normal drawdown by the COE, and waterlines will be visible on the many cliffs and bluffs along the reservoir. Local tackleshops report a continued solid walleye bite, and have tips for lower water scenarios. Simonson Photo.)