By Nick Simonson
There’s chilly, and then there’s spring fishing on the Missouri River chilly. No matter how I’ve fished it in the past couple of years, that stretch in March and April when the walleyes start to move on the flow provides its own unique challenges. The wind seems to always be blowing upstream, pulling with it the cold from the fast-flowing water below and depositing the bulk of it directly on my hands as I struggle to wrangle a squirming fathead minnow from a scoop, or fumble through the reclipping process of a crankbait on the end of a trolling line. The days when the weather is worse – damp, gusty, spits of rain or flecks of snow – always seem to shine more than those calm, bright offerings that occasionally pop up on the calendar, at least in terms of providing fish to catch.
That was the case this weekend as my brother joined me for a jaunt on the narrowed shores at the head of Lake Oahe and we launched from the last available stretch of concrete that the boat ramp could provide into the gray, silty water. As he made the test run of his big motor and got the fussy kicker to turn over, we set our plan to simply troll the edges of the channel, watching the screen for pods of fish and then go back over and jig them. With the southeast wind rising just after dawn to meet the forecasted gust predictions which weren’t supposed to come until later in the day, we turned the boat and sailed upstream pushed by the gales and the 9.9 kicker whirring along on the stern.
Focused on his sidescan readout, he marked the first of five schools of fish of varying size in the stretch above the launch as I watched the action of my number 7 Shad Rap wiggling in the water next to the boat, before opening the bail and letting it dive into the brown depths. With limited real estate on the drought-shrunken area, we watched the rest of the weekend warriors join us on the strip of available water. Some coasted in behind us to jig the targets we had picked up, others blasted along the edge of the channel to upstream destinations while we stuck to our plan of troll-mark-and-jig. As we made the turn and the wind cut crosswise, I joked about how it always seems unnatural to pull a crankbait in such cold waters. Not long after I did, the rod bowed with the weight of a fish and I began the process of retrieving the 200 feet of line behind us towing a 15-inch walleye to the surface, realizing that perhaps, the joke was on me.
The fish was ice cold as I unhooked it, and I watched the peach color of my fingertips quickly turn red and then white as they began to lock up from the exposure to the water on the walleye’s sides and the spray from the livewell as we began the drift back over the areas marked on my brother’s GPS map. The wind wreaked havoc on the trolling motor’s spot lock efforts and made vertical jigging all but impossible as whitecaps rose on the water and the intensity of the gusts increased. I pulled the fingerless gloves off with my teeth and produced a pair of heavy winter mittens from the pocket of my jacket, as we both agreed it would likely be a trolling only morning, the harder work of jigging and trying to feel my lure below replaced with the less difficult task of watching the numbers on a line counter whir and feeling for the bump of the bottom.
After a few more passes along the stretch of marked fish with no results, we too headed upriver a mile or so, navigating the silty sandbars, finding the best possible channels in the low waters and riding the gusts that pushed us along. Locating a stretch leading upstream to where half a dozen boats were parked at the head of a run, we dropped our crankbaits and repeated the process. As the bail unwound on my first drop, the tip of the finger on my glove got tangled in the line counter mechanism and broke the readout on the reel. Left to guess at the amount of monofilament trailing the boat, I went down into the spool to about where it had been before, hoping that the crankbait would find its mark.
As I clicked the bail shut, my brother remarked of two large shadows that showed up on his sonar screen. With the tip of the trolling rod bumping along and despite the reel counter reading just 017 in the plastic capsule, I knew I was making contact with the bottom and at least would be in the neighborhood of the fish as we cruised along beginning to mark fish more frequently along the trollable stretch of water. In midsentence, the rod in my hands slammed backward and jarred me out of the conversation on theories of armchair spring spawning science with a shout of “fish!”
This time, the bow in my rod was different. The fish stayed down and as the boat turned with the idling of the kicker motor, I hustled to pull up the line as the mark on the screen suddenly became a head-shaking reality on the hook, which swam toward the boat as we neared the hook-up spot. It cut toward the narrow strip of water between the stern and the shore before finally breaching like Jaws, mouth agape and dorsal fin aloft, connected to the lure by a single hook on the back treble as it slid into the waiting landing net and made its way aboard. It was a plump female walleye and after a couple of quick pictures, I slid it off the opposite side of the boat; its catch-and-release the highlight of our chilly morning.
I landed a bookend keeper on the crystal perch patterned bait to close the outing as a steady stream of whitecaps pushed us around in the small stretch. Motoring up, we headed back downstream to the launch, content with all that the trip had taught us about the course of the reduced flow, where to find the fish, and how sometimes the hardest work in spring can just be withstanding the elements and holding onto the rod when a walleye strikes…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Hold On. Spring conditions can bring their own challenges and some great rewards like this nice walleye the author caught and released from the shrunken flows of upper Lake Oahe near Bismarck, N.D. Simonson Photo.